ADHD: A sometimes welcome diagnosis

“It’s ADHD, that’s what I have,” my friend Ann told me some years ago. She made the announcement with a combination of enthusiasm and relief, as if getting diagnosed with ADHD were the beginning of the end of years of anxiety and frustration — which, in fact, it was.

I had never heard of such a thing. I did know Ann was remarkably creative, that she often jumped from one idea to another, lost her house keys with regularity, frequently left things undone,  pushed herself to achieve and was famous for juggling three or four projects at once. By now, almost everyone in the country knows someone (or is someone) with a similar combination of traits, and almost everyone has heard of ADHD.

The symptoms of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder seem to describe half the people in New York City (and elsewhere): restlessness, impatience, impulsivity, procrastination, chronic lateness, and difficulty getting organized, focusing and finishing tasks.

How do you know you have ADHD, which experts compare to having a mind like a pinball, with thoughts flitting in multiple directions. Maybe you’re just overcaffeinated and overworked? And if you do have it, will there be a stigma? Should you try medication? Will it work?

Parents of children with suspected ADHD face a myriad of similar questions. But the concerns can be just as troubling for adults, whose ADHD often goes unrecognized.

An estimated 8% of U.S. children have ADHD, which is also known as ADD, for attention-deficit disorder, and some 50% of them outgrow it, according to government data. About 4.4% of U.S. adults—some 10 million people—also have ADHD and less than one-quarter of them are aware of it.

That’s because while ADHD always starts in childhood, according to official diagnostic criteria, many adults with the disorder went unnoticed when they were young. And it’s only been since the 1980s that therapists even recognized the disorder could persist in adults.

Even now, getting an accurate diagnosis is tricky. Some experts think that too many adults—and children—are being put on medications for ADHD, often by doctors with little experience with the disorder. Others think that many more people could benefit from ADHD drugs and behavioral therapy.

Ann considers herself one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed relatively early (although the disorder undoubtedly caused a long list of problems that might well have been avoided) and settled into a drug regimen that has made life greatly more livable for decades. It does not appear she had other problems that often accompany ADHD, as Wall Street Journal health writer Melinda Beck explains in an informative ‘Personal Journal’ article this week.

Complicating the picture further, ADHD frequently goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and it can be difficult to untangle which came first. “It’s very common for someone to be treated for depression or anxiety for years, and have the therapist not notice the ADHD,” says Mary Solanto, director of the AD/HD Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But adults whose ADHD is left untreated face a high incidence of substance abuse, automobile accidents, difficultly staying employed and maintaining relationships.

That said, some adults with ADHD are highly intelligent, energetic, charismatic and creative, and are able to focus intently on a narrow range of topics that interest them. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways, and Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, have spoken out about how the disorder helped them come up with innovative ideas for their corporations, despite their having done poorly in school.

“It’s amazing how successful some people are able to be despite these symptoms, and some people are totally paralyzed—there’s a whole spectrum of outcomes,” says Ivan K. Goldberg, a psychiatrist in New York City who co-developed a commonly used screening test.

Generally, ADHD can make life very difficult. It’s thought to be an imbalance in neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that relay signals in the brain, particularly in the frontal cortex that governs planning and impulse control. Children with the disorder, particularly boys, are likely to be hyperactive, with an intense need to move constantly, which can interfere with learning. (Girls tend to be talkative and dreamy, but they are often overlooked because they aren’t as disruptive.)

Adults more typically have trouble with paying attention, focusing and prioritizing. Managing time and money are particularly difficult.

“What it really is is a disturbance of the executive functions of the brain — it’s the inability to plan things, to initiate them at the appropriate time, not to skip any of the steps and to terminate them at the appropriate time,” says Dr. Goldberg. “An awful lot of these people are very bright but they can’t keep it together. They keep screwing things up.”

It’s that last line that gets the attention of us all. Some of us screw things up more often than others — and wonder if we could blame it on ADHD. Identifying, and treating, those who can is a bright-spot possibility of the future.

ADHD: Why More Adults Are Being Diagnosed – WSJ.com.

Your latte or your life

At last, an addiction I can be proud of. Having given up nicotine, alcohol and sin in general over the years, I was beginning to despair about the remaining unbreakable habits:  sugar, butterfat… and caffeine.  But now, suggests Wall Street Journal health writer Melinda Beck, caffeine might just be putting a little distance between Alzheimer’s and me. It might not be an anti-dementia guarantee, and it could have a few downer side effects, but still. A ray of sunshine on the addiction scene.

To judge by recent headlines, coffee could be the latest health-food craze, right up there with broccoli and whole-wheat bread.

But don’t think you’ll be healthier graduating from a tall to a venti just yet. While there has been a splash of positive news about coffee lately, there may still be grounds for concern.

  • Cancer: Earlier studies implicating coffee in causing cancer have been disproven; may instead lower the risk of colon, mouth, throat and other cancers.
  • Heart disease: Long-term coffee drinking does not appear to raise the risk and may provide some protection.
  • Hypertension: Caffeine raises blood pressure, so sufferers should be wary.
  • Cholesterol: Some coffee—especially decaf—raises LDL, the bad kind of cholesterol.
  • Alzheimer’s: Moderate coffee drinking appears to be protective.
  • Osteoporosis: Caffeine lowers bone density, but adding milk can balance out the risk.
  • Pregnancy: Caffeine intake may increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth-weight babies.
  • Sleep: Effects are highly variable, but avoiding coffee after 3 p.m. can avert insomnia.
  • Mood: Moderate caffeine boosts energy and cuts depression, but excess amounts can cause anxiety.

So let’s see. My bone reports have actually upscaled recently, so all that butterfat and a few bone meds are outpacing the latte. I can fall asleep midway through a cappuccino, and I don’t have time to be depressed. Unlikely to get pregnant. Addiction situation looks better and better. Further insight comes from Duke University Medical Center psychophysiologist Jim Lane, who’s been studying the effects of caffeine for more than 25 years, and from a distinguished addiction psychiatrist (I wonder if I should volunteer for a study) at Vanderbilt University.

“When I went to medical school, I was told that coffee was harmful. But in the ’90s and this decade, it’s become clear that if you do these studies correctly, coffee is protective in terms of public health,” says Peter R. Martin, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University and director of the school’s Institute for Coffee Studies, founded in 1999 with a grant from coffee-producing countries.Still, many researchers believe that the only way to draw firm conclusions about something like coffee is through experimental trials in which some subjects are exposed to measured doses and others get a placebo, with other variables tightly controlled. When that’s been done, says Duke’s Dr. Lane, “the experimental studies and the [observational] studies are in very sharp disagreement about whether caffeine is healthy or not.”

Harmful Effects

His own small, controlled studies have shown that caffeine—administered in precise doses in tablet form—raises blood pressure and blood-sugar levels after a meal in people who already have diabetes. Other studies have found that caffeine and stress combined can raise blood pressure even more significantly. “If you are a normally healthy person, that might not have any long-term effect,” says Dr. Lane. “But there are some groups of people who are predisposed to get high blood pressure and heart disease and for them, caffeine might be harmful over time.”

[HEALTHCOLfront]

Epidemiologists counter that such small studies don’t mirror real-world conditions, and they can’t examine the long-term risk of disease.

The debate goes on. Do people remember how many cups they drink? How big is your mug? How random is your study? Did your ancestors have a history of — uh, oh, my parents met and married in Brazil where I was born. Maybe that’s where it all started.

I will welcome your comments on caffeine addictions; they will be compiled over a take-out tall extra-foamy latte.

Seeking Coffee’s Benefits to Health – WSJ.com.