The truth behind ADHD in adult women

ADHD is usually associated with children, particularly boys, but it also affects a large percentage of women. So what are the real facts about ADHD in adult women?

When you picture a person with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you probably imagine a six-year-old boy who can’t sit still.  But in fact, adult women with ADHD are the fastest growing group of sufferers, and the condition can have drastic effects on both their work performance and personal life.

Between 2008 and 2012, the use of ADHD medication jumped by 85% in women aged 24 to 36.  Yet, surprisingly, there’s very little research into ADHD in adult women.

Dr Ellen Littman is one of the few experts on ADHD in high-IQ women.  She explains that young boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD, but the rates of diagnosis in adults are equal.

Read: 5 Must-Dos to Avoid the Breaking Point in Your Life and Leadership

adhd in adult women


Gender differences in ADHD

“There are gender differences in the expression of ADHD, even if the symptoms themselves don’t differ by gender,” Littman explains.  “[Women and girls with ADHD] are under-recognised, therefore they’re under-studied, therefore they’re misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated.”  And while boys’ symptoms tend to improve with age, the opposite is true for girls.

What we think of as “classic” ADHD – fidgeting, impulsiveness, inability to focus – is only one form of the condition.  ADHD in adult women is less likely to present as hyperactive: instead, they tend to be easily distracted and anxious, with poor timekeeping and organisational skills.  These symptoms are often misinterpreted as character flaws, which is one of the reasons women with ADHD are so commonly affected by depression and low self-esteem.

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ADHD has no effect on a person’s intelligence or competence, but it can lead to career-damaging mistakes like missing deadlines or losing important information.  Women with ADHD can find themselves labelled careless or unreliable by colleagues who don’t understand their condition.  Many sufferers control their symptoms and stop their condition affecting their work performance, but staying organised is usually an uphill struggle.  A common outcome is for a woman to seem super-competent at work, while her personal life is falling apart because she has no energy left to look after herself.

Lifelong condition

While ADHD is a lifelong condition, there ways to alleviate the symptoms.  From noise-blocking headphones to careful filing systems, small adjustments can make a big difference.  A professional organiser or even a specialist careers coach can help you come up with personalised coping strategies.  Medications like Adderall, despite their bad reputation, can be a lifesaver for severe cases of ADHD.  With more and more women diagnosed with ADHD every year, you should never be afraid to seek help.

Read: Doctor’s dismissal of women’s pain “In pain shall you bring forth children”

Women with ADHD are far more likely than the general population to suffer anxiety or depression, and teenage girls with the condition are more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide.  One of the reasons for this is that women with ADHD have often gone their entire life seeing their problems as character flaws rather than medical symptoms.

“There are gender differences in the expression of ADHD, even if the symptoms themselves don’t differ by gender”

Women are diagnosed more often than girls – ratio 1:1 men:women but 4:1 boys:girls.  Girls about 2% of the focus of ADD research.

Depression and anxiety

“Oestogen affects cognition, mood, and sleep, and the brain is one of the target organs for it.  The symptoms really blossom when oestrogen starts coming into their systems so they appear less symptomatic in elementary school and as the approach puberty you see more and more symptoms….whereas boys symptoms tend to decrease towards puberty, girls symptoms start to blossom towards puberty and by age 15-16 you really start to see the symptoms.

Women exhibit depressive feelings when they see themselves as under-achievers

There’s also the fact that ADHD tends to appear later in girls. Children with inattentive-type ADHD often benefit from school routines and a supportive family: once they hit their teenage years and have to start taking more responsibility for themselves, they often struggle to cope.  Littman points out that oestrogen causes increased symptoms during puberty: “Oestogen affects cognition, mood, and sleep, and the brain is one of the target organs for it…. Whereas boys’ [ADHD] symptoms tend to decrease towards puberty, girls’ symptoms start to blossom.

Girls are under-recognised, therefore they’re under-studied, therefore they’re misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and mistreated”

Experts disagree on whether ADHD is truly more common in boys, or whether girls are just less likely to be diagnosed since their symptoms are easier to miss.

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Alice Bell Contributor
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."

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