Diagnosing ADHD in Adults

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on November 27, 2023
5 min read

There isn't one specific thing that can indicate that you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Instead, your doctor will make a diagnosis based on information from a number of sources.

There's no single test for ADHD in adults. Your doctor will ask you about your behavior and see if you have typical symptoms, such as:

  • Trouble paying attention
  • Restlessness
  • Being impulsive

Other signs you may have ADHD in adulthood include:

  • Trouble with job performance or your career, including losing jobs or quitting them a lot
  • Not doing as well in school or at work as you could
  • Trouble with normal tasks such as chores, paying your bills, or staying organized
  • Trouble with your relationships because you don't get things done
  • Forgetting things a lot
  • Getting upset easily by small or unimportant things
  • Feeling stressed or worried because you can't reach goals or finish things you are expected to do
  • Feeling frustrated or guilty

It's sometimes hard for doctors to diagnose ADHD when you're an older adult. That's because the symptoms can look similar to those of other conditions you get when you're older, such as early Alzheimer's disease. But when you have ADHD, you've most likely had it ever since you were a kid even if you didn't know it.

Because ADHD in adults isn't as common, make an appointment with a health care professional who has experience and training in helping people older than 17. This could be a:

  • Psychiatrist
  • Neurologist
  • Primary care physician
  • Clinical psychologist
  • Clinical social worker

Ask your primary care doctor for information or a referral to one of these specialists. You can also search for a specialist in your health insurance plan's online directory. A local support group for adults with ADHD may also be able to recommend a doctor near you.

How to get help

Choose a doctor who has experience treating adults with ADHD. If you find out you have ADHD, a neurologist or psychiatrist will monitor your health and prescribe medication.

A therapist or life coach can help you make positive changes in your day-to-day life.

Before or during your appointment, you may take psychological tests, such as completing a checklist of symptoms or a behavior rating scale. You may also get tested to check for a learning disability or other problems that might look like or coexist with ADHD, such as depression or anxiety.

Your history of medical issues and a physical exam can help your doctor rule out a condition such as a thyroid problem or seizure disorder. These could mimic the effects of ADHD.

ADHD tests online

You might find self-tests or rating scales online. While it's OK to use those to get an idea if you think you may have ADHD, remember that those tests aren't proven. They can't give you a sure diagnosis. To find out for sure if you have ADHD and get help, you'll need to see someone who is qualified and experienced in diagnosing ADHD in adults.

Your doctor will ask you questions about the symptoms you've noticed at school or work, your use of drugs and alcohol, your driving record, and your relationships with family and friends. Adults need to meet a lower threshold of symptoms than kids—5 out of 9 over the past 6 months—for a diagnosis.

You might feel embarrassed talking about these things or worry about being judged for the problems they've caused, but it's important to be honest so you can get the help you're looking for.

Everyone has trouble concentrating or staying organized from time to time. But when you have ADHD, your symptoms will cause serious issues for you at work, school, or home. Major events in two out of these three areas, like getting fired from a job, failing classes, and being unable to pay bills on time, are generally needed for an ADHD diagnosis.

Clues in the past

Your experiences when you were younger matter, too. To be diagnosed with ADHD, your symptoms must have started in childhood (technically before you were 12). However, your symptoms might have been different at other times in your life, and they may not have caused you many problems until now.

The doctor might also want to talk with your parents or partner. This isn't about checking on your answers. It's so they can learn more about behaviors you may not notice or remember. Then they can better understand your past and present challenges.

If you have any records—such as performance evaluations from work, copies of any previous psychological test results, or even old report cards from school—bring them to your appointment.

There are two types of ADHD. You may be diagnosed with the hyperactive/impulsive type if you're often restless, fidgety, interrupting, or can't wait. On the other hand, people with the inattentive type are often unfocused and easily distracted, seem careless and make mistakes, forget or lose things, and have trouble staying organized. You could have a combination of both.

Based on your symptoms, your doctor will suggest treatment, which often includes medication, therapy, and learning strategies to manage your behavior.

Your doctor may give you medicine to help you focus and concentrate better, such as:

  • Amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate/dexmethylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Focalin)
  • Lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse)

You may be surprised how well and quickly medication works. But finding the right medication and dosage isn't always straightforward. It's more complicated if you take other drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. And there aren't many studies on ADHD medication for people over 50, so your doctor may want to be cautious.

Medicine is just part of your strategy for treating ADHD. You'll get ideas from your doctor on how to manage your day-to-day life, build new habits, and get organized.

Also, a therapist or coach can help. You may try using things such as alarms, daily planners, or lists. Your smartphone also can be a handy tool for staying organized. You can use it to set reminders, too.

A therapist can help you identify and work on the areas in your life that need attention. Maybe it's holding a steady job, smoothing out financial challenges, or working on your relationships.

Ask your doctor if they can help to get your family members on the same page. Your ADHD care team can explain ADHD in adults to your relatives and come up with ideas to help everyone work together.