08/03/2012 03:25 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Adult ADHD: A Little Awareness Goes a Long Way

"I probably have a little bit of ADHD myself -- where do you think my kid got it from?"

It's a frequent comment I hear in conversation, once people know what I do for a living. It also comes up in my medical practice several times a month. Grownups feel that they had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child or might have it now. Often, this reflection is sparked by having witnessed their own children benefiting from ADHD interventions. And still, most adults shrug off the possibility of ADHD or make a self-effacing joke without apparent thoughts for doing anything concrete about it at all.

A mental shrug can be seen in one way as an admirable acceptance of what actually "is" -- not wrestling with reality. As I heard this week from one parent, "I'm 50 years old, this is who I am." But there is also something trivializing about it, a sense that ADHD is either not worth addressing or maybe not a valid concern to have as an adult. And yet, people may be selling themselves short by not addressing what is in fact a chronic medical condition. Change is possible at any age, and assertively managing ADHD will almost certainly decrease daily stress while increasing both happiness and productivity.

Here's the bottom line: If you have ADHD, by definition you have "impairment" somewhere in life -- it's part of the diagnosis. If you're distractible or a little impulsive and thriving across the board, then you don't have ADHD. The impairment may affect self-esteem, daily stress and relationships or far subtler matters like obesity, a lifetime of late bills, or chronic, disabling procrastination. Seeking a diagnosis isn't a treatment decision but may define the "why" behind a lifetime of struggle. It moves you one huge step toward understanding how best to move forward.

The Bare Facts of Adult ADHD

Adult ADHD affects around 4 percent of the population, although the actual diagnosis rate is far lower. In spite of widespread misperceptions to the contrary, ADHD is a medical condition stemming from decreased activity level in various parts of the brain. The term "ADHD" is also misleading, as the disorder does not involve only inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity. It instead interferes with a whole host of self-regulatory skills called "executive function" that can affect almost any aspect of daily living. Difficulty with executive function, which acts as a "brain manager" by moderating all our actions and planning, is often the most prominent feature in adult ADHD. Previously seen mostly as a childhood condition, many adult providers are only now learning about ADHD's grown-up implications.

While much can be done to support individuals with ADHD, to address its potential impact we need to know it's there in the first place. Many adults live unaware of what sits behind their chronic struggles with attention, time management, emotional self-regulation, and a host of related facilities that impact family, work, and well-being. They may misattribute the root of various troubles, lagging in self-confidence or inappropriately judging themselves to be lazy, incompetent, or unmotivated.

To identify the frequently-hidden influences of ADHD on family, adults need to at least consider the possibility that they have it. ADHD can have a profound effect on relationships. Symptoms in a spouse or a parent affect the whole family, and parents of children with ADHD can have a significant risk of having this highly-inheritable condition. On top of that, adult ADHD can make it harder to stick to recommended parenting strategies that depend on consistent routines and limit setting, escalating a tough dynamic.

If you're curious about yourself or someone else you care about, the World Health Organization has a free adult ADHD screener. Information about adult ADHD and listings of resources are available through the adult ADHD association (ADDA). And many good books have been published about the effects of ADHD on families and relationships, offering tips for minimizing its effects on you and your loved ones. Finding the time to take care of yourself as a parent with ADHD is an often vital part of caring for your family and children... which may include proactively addressing the impact of your own ADHD on family life.

For more by Mark Bertin, M.D., click here.

For more on ADHD, click here.