In the mid-2000s to the late 2010s, our understanding of ADHD increased tenfold. That understanding led to more people being diagnosed than ever, as physicians had more research-backed criteria to go off of.
That increase in diagnoses, however, was questioned by the general public. They felt doctors were over-diagnosing and over-medicating, but they weren’t. In fact, it’s more realistic to say that before the 2000s, ADHD was underdiagnosed, as it still wasn’t well-understood.
Thousands of people, adults, and children, never got diagnosed before 2000, and most still haven’t gotten an official status report today.
All that to answer the question, is ADHD real? Yes – there’s neuroscience to prove it.
What is ADHD and How Does it Operate in the Brain?
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and is related to the chemical “Norephinepherine” in the brain.
When researchers looked at the functioning of ADHD brains vs. Neurotypical brains, they found lower levels of norepinephrine ni ADHD brains.
That chemical is directly related to dopamine, which you know as the “pleasure chemical,” which controls the reward center of the brain.
While the interaction between those two chemicals is too complicated to explain in detail, it’s thought to be the reason for impaired activity in ADHD brains.
The ADHD Brain: Affected Parts
Your brain has different regions. The biggest sections are called cortexes, though each cortex has its own smaller parts.
There are four different brain regions that show impaired function in the brains of people with ADHD. They are …
The Frontal Cortex
Your frontal cortex is one of the last things to develop in utero, which is one reason we see a link between premature infants and ADHD status.
It’s in charge of something called executive functioning, which is the “planning” center of your brain. When executive functioning is impaired, that, in turn, affects the person’s ability to organize thoughts and information as well as their capability to concentrate.
The Limbic System
Deeper in your brain, closer to your brain stem or “lizard brain” is the limbic system. It’s partially in charge of regulating emotions and attention.
Reticular Activating System
One thing many people don’t know about ADHD is that it increases impulsive thoughts and behaviors. Scientists think that has to do with impaired executive functioning, but also deficiencies in the Reticular Activating System.
You can think of the RAS as a subway station of sorts, where information comes into and out of the brain. Researchers believe that impaired function in the RAS plays a role in the hyperactivity aspect of ADHD.
Another part of the brain that helps govern impulsivity is the basal ganglia. It’s a small part of the brain, located deep between the cerebrum, which is probably why you’ve never heard of it.
Its job is to help the brain communicate within itself, between the different cortexes and lobes.
In brains with ADHD, this function often “short-circuits” or forgets to deliver a message. You can see that happening directly when someone with ADHD suddenly gets distracted when they seemed “focused” before.
Is ADHD Real? What About ADD?
It’s hard to argue with the science above, though few people bother to learn how ADHD works in the brain.
ADHD is just as real as any other mental functioning disorder, such as depression, anger issues, dyslexia, and any other medical issue rooted in brain chemical dysfunction.
Now that you know that ADHD is real, let’s talk about its sibling ADD.
ADD is just as real as ADHD and functions almost exactly the same. The only difference is that those with ADD don’t have (as much of) the hyperactivity part.
A child with ADD will appear calmer than a child (or adult!) with ADHD, though both of their brains are moving a mile a minute. People with ADD still have trouble sitting still for long periods of time but are usually better at it than those with ADHD
The two disorders are so similar, in fact, that Scientists are beginning to classify it as “ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Type.”
Adult ADHD: Don’t You Grow Out of It?
There’s a misconception that ADD and ADHD are children’s issues. And that’s partly true – about 30% of children grow out of childhood ADHD, but that still leaves 70% of the population that carries their diagnosis into adulthood.
70% is a staggering statistic in the medical field, making those that don’t grow out of their ADHD/ADD the majority.
Why Do We Hear About Adult ADHD Less?
There are two reasons you don’t hear about adults being diagnosed with ADHD/ADD as often as children.
One goes back to how recent our understanding of ADHD is. Chances are if they grew up in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, their physicians didn’t diagnose them with ADHD as a child, and they never knew they were living with the disorder.
The second reason is that many of those adults, who didn’t get diagnosed as children, have learned to live with the different way their brain functions and don’t seek answers or ADHD treatment.
The data supports this – 16% of adults are thought to have ADHD, but only 4% of them get diagnosed every year. That means that 3/4 of the population (that didn’t get diagnosed as children) are living without treatment or awareness of their very real condition.
Combatting ADHD in Adults
Now that you know the answer to “is ADHD real?,” you may be wondering what you can do about it, especially if you just got a diagnosis. Medication is an option, but it’s not your only one.
You can also look into executive functioning training, which involves brain games specifically developed to strengthen the neurologically impaired parts of the ADHD brain.
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