8 Things that Can Happen When You Don’t Treat ADHD
From social to work issues, find out how untreated ADHD can affect your life.
11 million Americans have ADHD
About 5% of adults, or 11 million people, have ADHD, according to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). The number of ADHD cases have risen in the past 20 years, partly due to increased awareness about this complicated condition, suggests a 2018 JAMA study. The researchers found that about 10% of children and adolescents had been diagnosed with ADHD in 2015-2016 compared with 6% in 1997-1998. But while increased awareness can be a good thing, there can also be a surprising flip side toward people getting properly diagnosed, says Elisa I. Muniz, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “These days, with our fast-paced world and technology and multi-tasking, there are a lot of people who may feel like they can’t focus, but that’s not necessarily ADHD. On the other hand, there are people who do actually have it and aren’t getting the treatment they need,” she explains. Treatment for ADHD includes a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication—but how do you know whether you need treatment or are just caught up in today’s fast-paced society and need to hit the yoga class more often? “What we differentiate between what might be ADHD and what’s non-pathological is really about how these symptoms are affecting your life,” says Muniz.
Discover how untreated ADHD can affect your—or your child’s—life:
Hyperfocus—or lack of focus
While a classic issue with ADHD is the inability to focus on one activity for long, leaving unfinished projects in their wake (and having trouble sticking to deadlines), another unknown flip side to the focus issue is hyperfocus. “Some parents have told me, ‘he can’t have ADHD, he can play Minecraft on his video games for hours at a time,’ but there are different types of attention,” says Deborah A. Pearson, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth in Houston, Texas. Someone who has trouble finishing tasks that are more mundane—cleaning the kitchen, paying bills, schoolwork—yet finding themselves easily absorbed in a project or activity that is appealing to them, may benefit from treatment.” ADHD can be difficult to diagnose, and it starts with your doctor first ruling out other conditions.
In classrooms, the hyperactive child who can’t sit still is the typical ADHD stereotype, but an overlooked symptom is inattentiveness. “These are the day-dreamers of the classroom,” says Dr. Pearson. “Inattentiveness, which is more common in girls, tend to get overlooked the most for ADHD diagnoses because they don’t display the classic symptoms. Inattentiveness can be just as devastating in terms of functioning, though, and is one form of ADHD.”
Impulsivity and reckless behavior
We all have that one friend: The one who blurts out just what’s on her mind. While sometimes that can be an admirable trait—you might think, I wish I had the guts to say that—sometimes it can get in the way of your life, and could even, in some cases, lead to dangerous outcomes. “Impulsivity can be very detrimental for life for both your personal life and career, like blurting out what you really think to the wrong person can get you in trouble, for example, and can lead to reckless behavior like getting behind the wheel when you shouldn’t,” says Dr. Pearson. Learn more about impulse control and how to manage it.
Perhaps the most commonly known ADHD symptom is hyperactivity—the classic “kid running around the classroom” phenomenon. It’s also the most misunderstood, says Dr. Pearson. “It’s not a made-up entity or willful misbehavior,” she says. “Imagine you had to stand up on one foot for six hours; that’s what it’s like for a little kid with ADHD to go to school and pay attention for six hours. I like to remind people that this is a neurodevelopment condition with biological and genetic underpinnings, and left untreated it can very seriously undermine someone’s life and ability to function in school and other settings. It’s a very significant issue, and hyperactivity in children can easily be dismissed but it could very well be ADHD.”
“By the time someone reaches adolescence, the hyperactivity associated with ADHD may have gone away but the fidgeting remains—it’s a restlessness, a jitteriness, an element of impatience,” says Dr. Pearson. “We used to think, 40 years ago, that when the symptoms of hyperactivity disappeared, the syndrome was going away and they were growing out of it, but that’s not the case for many people, it simply shifts to a different symptom which can cause just as many issues.”
School can be especially challenging for children with untreated ADHD, and these issues can sometimes carry through to adulthood, says Dr. Muniz. “It’s common for those with untreated ADHD to have the potential to perform in school settings, but their symptoms impair their ability to do so,” she says. “So you may start college and not finish, for example, or not attain as much schooling as you could have, simply because you have a condition that’s preventing you from doing so.”
These days, switching jobs or even careers is more the norm than it was for generations past. But constant job instability can also signal untreated ADHD, says Dr. Muniz. “Adults with untreated ADHD will often have troubles with work, whether it’s your ability to hold a job for long, you continue to switch jobs, or you keep getting terminated from jobs,” she says. (Here are the ways your job may be making you age faster.)
Another symptom of untreated ADHD is instability in relationships, both romantic or platonic. “They may make friends easily, but they’ll often lose them just as easily,” says Dr. Muniz. What’s the key to a happy relationship? Discover the top myths about happy relationships.
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA): ADHD: The Facts
- Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): "Twenty-Year Trends in Diagnosed Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Among US Children and Adolescents, 1997-2016"
- Elisa I. Muniz, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City
- Deborah A. Pearson, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences at Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UTHealth in Houston, Texas