Falling Out of Focus: What Science Says About ADHD



I typically wake up when my iPhone reads 8:42 a.m. A full minute later, I’m scanning my inbox on my phone, checking for new messages. I might get lucky and find a few worth responding to, and maybe I will write back right then and there, but, more likely, I’ll start a new draft of my reply, and hightail it to the trending news — it being an election year, I’ve probably done that more than ever before, checking election-forecast maps before I’m off to read, and subsequently write, about the most recent findings in science news.

Somewhere in between, I’ll probably cross over four different websites (minimally), and by midday have at least 12 tabs open on my HP Split touchscreen laptop. A few might even be a surprise when I click across the screen about an hour later, maybe halfway into writing my story. There’s of course always the risk that a good portion of the day will be lost to Facebook. It’s work, I convince myself. If I’m to blog, what’s a little promoting my newest post on an array of groups, and occasionally picking an argument on the world’s biggest social network?

It seems like quite a feat when my posts for the day are finally finished — as is the sense of real accomplishment that comes with getting anything done at all. From the moment I unlock my social media, it seems like the world comes rushing in — and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it. The constant barrage of information turns us all into multitaskers (some better at it than others) — but we’re probably all second-guessing how good we are and how good we can be.

In a world where a mix of news and entertainment comes at you fast, and there’s not much escape from, or difference between, the two, it seems inevitable that the average attention span today is a short eight seconds — even less than that of a typical goldfish. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a cognitive disorder that has only been brought to light in the last two decades, continues to be a rising concern among not only parents, but also for adults themselves — making it one of the most overdiagnosed disorders in the United States.

Nearly 15 percent of American school-age children have been diagnosed with ADHD, a sharp increase from 20 years ago. In addition, an average of 5 percent of schoolchildren in nearly every culture has been diagnosed with ADHD. The World Health Organization estimated that the disorder has affected 39 million people worldwide. Yet, the disorder remains as big a controversy as ever among the general public and many in the medical community — with substantial numbers of people doubting the problem even exists.

Is It Really ADHD?

The techniques of diagnosis remain controversial, with many mental health advocates feeling that the criterion for an ADHD diagnosis is too narrow, a reason why there’s been such a rapid increase in the number of cases. Do all of them really need help? Or maybe some of them have simply picked up multitasking as second nature?

According to a study conducted at the University of Michigan, the likelihood of an ADHD diagnosis correlated with the time at which children began kindergarten. Those who started school a year earlier were five times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their peers who waited an additional year before attending. It is likely that the misdiagnosis is just the result of childish behavior in many of these cases.

Those who started a year later were also four times less likely to be medicated for ADHD symptoms. Although no large scale study has been done to highlight the negative long-term effects of stimulant therapy, particularly in cases of misdiagnosis, the side effects of commonly used ADHD medications have been documented — hypertension and slowed growth rates.

A key component to determining whether or not an individual has ADHD is if their mind wanders in two different settings. Usually in class, everyone has a lapse in attention from time to time, but people who suffer from ADHD will experience similar problems at home or in the workplace as well. Even activities that once gave them pleasure become something they are unable to do quietly. In other words, people who suffer from the disorder are typically uncomfortable being quiet or inert for extended periods of time.

In adults, forgetting appointments or paying bills could be symptomatic of the disorder. It is at this stage when the disorder can become costly (as many people who suffer from ADHD also fail to review paperwork accurately and don’t remember to return calls) and also harder to diagnose (as fewer adults may be aware of it as a problem affecting them) — both reasons why those suffering may have difficulty holding on to their jobs. If left untreated, many of those diagnosed as children can also suffer from the symptoms well into adulthood.

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