Up to 10 million American adults have attention deficit disorder (ADD), but only approximately 10% know it. Here are some of the myths about adult ADD that I want to dispel...

Myth #1: People with ADD can't sit still or focus properly.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the "bible" of psychiatrists, refers to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The term isn't entirely accurate because hyperactivity (having trouble sitting through movies, for example, or frequently tapping your fingers or feet) may or may not be present.

The other important symptoms of ADD are inattention and impulsivity.

Examples of inattention include reading a book and spacing out or staring at someone's lips while they're talking to you but not taking in what they're saying.

Examples of impulsivity include taking unnecessary risks or having trouble waiting in line. Most adults suffer from only one or two of the three primary symptoms—hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity.

Even the term attention deficit is misleading. Most people with ADD can focus intensely when necessary.

Myth #2: ADD is a learning disability.

Most adults who have ADD have normal IQs. They read and absorb new information as well as people who don't have the disorder-though they may have to make adjustments for their ADD symptoms.

Example: High-energy adults with ADD often avoid careers that are detail-oriented, such as accounting, bookkeeping and secretarial work. They like to work on multiple projects at the same time to stave off boredom. These individuals create systems (calendars, notes, etc) to stay organized.

Myth #3: Poor parenting causes ADD.

This is totally false. People with ADD have a physical problem that they're born with, but it is often not diagnosed until adulthood. The exact cause still isn't known, but ADD is believed to be primarily due to genetics.

Most people with ADD have at least one relative with the disorder. Adults whose mothers smoked cigarettes, took illegal drugs or drank alcohol during pregnancy are at an increased risk for ADD, according to recent research. People who have been exposed to environmental toxins, such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are also at an increased risk.

Many people with ADD have more challenging careers than those without it.

Consider David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue Airways. He has found ways to compensate for his ADD. For example, he takes a physical approach to his job, frequently going out onto the tarmac and checking up on his airplanes because he gets bored sitting in the office. An assistant helps keep his schedule.

People who have ADD also tend to be creative, intuitive and highly energetic. In my own case, I have three kids, have written 11 books and do 60 lectures a year. I don't think I would have the energy for all that if I didn't have ADD.

Myth #4: ADD cannot be diagnosed with any degree of accuracy.

There isn't a single test for ADD, any more than there's a single test for anxiety or depression. But it can be diagnosed objectively by a psychiatrist, psychologist or neurologist.

First, a careful medical history is essential for an accurate diagnosis. Before ruling out ADD, doctors also should discuss the patient's symptoms with a family member. People with ADD are poor self-observers. A second point of view often reveals things that patients overlook.

To see if the patient exhibits the criteria representative of ADD, psychiatrists usually use a checklist—a sense of not meeting goals, trouble getting organized, frequent procrastination, etc. A relatively new test known as quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG), which provides physical data by looking for slow brain waves in the frontal lobes, also should be administered. This test is 90% accurate in diagnosing ADD.

Myth #5: Stimulant drugs are really the only course of treatment.

Many patients do get better when they take stimulant drugs, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine).

These drugs don't cure ADD, but they reduce many of the symptoms, such as hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity.

The medications also stimulate the inhibitor neurons, which stop a great deal of the incoming and outgoing stimuli, allowing the patient to be more focused.

Atomoxetine (Strattera), is the first non-stimulant medication approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for adults with ADD. It works differently but just as effectively as stimulants, promoting higher brain levels of norepinephrine, a neurochemical that helps people focus and stay calm.

Nondrug treatments also are essential. All ADD sufferers should…

  • Exercise for at least 20 minutes every day. Any exercise that you enjoy, that is convenient for you and can be added to your daily routine, will be beneficial. Physical activity increases brain levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and helps people who have ADD release nervous energy.
  • Get a lifestyle coach. Many psychiatrists refer ADD patients to professionals who are trained to help them make lifestyle adjustments. A coach will come to your home and suggest ways to improve everything from your work area and habits to your family dynamics.
  • Talk to a psychotherapist. A directed, focused regimen of psychotherapy can be helpful in dealing with feelings that are often experienced by adults with ADD, such as low self-esteem and self-doubt.

To find a therapist, contact the Attention Deficit Disorder Association at 800-939-1019 or www.add.org.

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