Can ADHD Get Worse?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 17, 2022
4 min read

Age itself doesn’t necessarily make ADHD worse. The way your symptoms show up depends on several factors. The good news is that most adults are able to manage their lives well with therapy and medications. Here’s what you need to know.

The symptoms of ADHD show up a little differently in adults than they do in kids. Adults may deal with:

Inattention symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty paying attention or staying focused
  • Trouble following instructions or completing tasks, especially at work
  • A lack of organizational and time-management skills
  • Losing things such as wallets, keys, and smartphones
  • Being easily distracted and forgetful

Hyperactivity symptoms such as:

  • Extremely restless and unable to sit still
  • Fidgeting, squirming while seated, or tapping hands or feet
  • Talking excessively
  • Being always on the go

Impulsivity symptoms such as:

  • Acting without thinking
  • Blurting out inappropriate remarks
  • Trouble waiting in line
  • Interrupting others
  • Intruding on others

Adults usually have at least five symptoms of inattention and/or five symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. These symptoms can get worse if ADHD is untreated.

You may not have gotten an ADHD diagnosis until you were an adult because:

  • No one recognized you had the disorder as a kid
  • It was mild
  • You were able to get by with your symptoms

Some people discover they have ADHD as they grow older and are thrown into the demands of adulthood and work.

Research shows that getting treatment earlier in life can often lead to better functioning and less intense symptoms for people as they age. But treatment at any age can make a huge difference in quality of life.

ADHD symptoms can change over time. Some people can even outgrow their ADHD. Many things can be involved in these changes and in how severe your symptoms seem to you. Your symptoms may shift because of:

  • Life experiences
  • Support structure (or lack of support structure)
  • Physiological changes
  • Grief

Other things that can make ADHD symptoms more difficult as you get older include:

Stress. A busy schedule and feeling overwhelmed can trigger an episode of ADHD symptoms. But it’s a circular relationship: Your ADHD itself may also cause stress because it’s harder to filter out stressors around you. If you deal with anxiety (which you’re more likely to do if you have ADHD), this can make stress worse, too.

Poor sleep. Just like ADHD and stress, sleep and ADHD have a circular relationship. Having ADHD makes you more likely to sleep for a shorter amount of time, have problems falling asleep and staying asleep, and increases your risk of developing a sleep disorder. When you don’t sleep enough or well, your brain can become foggy and worsen ADHD symptoms such as inattention and carelessness. Sleep problems tend to get worse as you get older.

Certain foods. There's no clear scientific evidence that ADHD is caused or worsened by what you eat. But everyone benefits from foods low in fat, sodium, and sugar. Some additives may be problematic, too. These include:

  • Sodium benzoate
  • MSG
  • Red and yellow dyes

One study linked some dyes and sodium benzoate to greater hyperactivity.

Overstimulation. Certain environments such as concert venues, amusement parks, or other crowded, noisy spaces with bright lights can be hard to deal with when you have ADHD. This is called “sensory overload.” Often this triggers symptoms, especially trouble paying attention to conversations and the ability to focus.

Technology. Some technology can be helpful for ADHD. For example, keeping lists on your smartphone or setting alarms and reminders can help you stay on task during the day. But some technology can be distracting, especially if you are constantly getting notifications that compete for your already short attention span.

A long-term effect of ADHD is a higher risk of drug and alcohol use. This might be because of:

  • Impulsivity that leads to poor judgment and decision making
  • A genetic link between ADHD and vulnerability to substance use disorder
  • A desire to self-medicate

You’re less likely to have these problems if you get treatment for ADHD earlier in life. Treating other mental health issues can decrease your chances, too.

More than two-thirds of people with ADHD also have at least one other disorder, including:

Your doctor will help you make decisions about what needs treatment first and work with you to manage symptoms.

Treatment for adult ADHD usually involves stimulant medications and sessions with a mental health professional to help you form new patterns of thought and action. Other things that can help include:

  • Get regular exercise, especially when you feel restless or overly energetic.
  • Eat nutritious foods and avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.
  • Get at least 7–9 hours every night.
  • Avoid screens (TVs, computers, phones, and tablets) at least 1 hour before bedtime.
  • Find help for time organization, like an app or coach.
  • Write things down to remember messages, assignments, and appointments.
  • Connect with others. Make time for friends and people who understand your ADHD.
  • Seek support in groups with others who have ADHD.
  • Take your medications properly.