ADHD and Dementia: what is the connection?

By Alycia Gordan,

The National Alliance on Mental Illness conveys that approximately 43.8 million or every 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year.  Although two of the most common disorders that affect people are depression and anxiety disorders, cases of dementia such as Alzheimer’s are increasing in number too.  Currently, WHO estimates that 47 million people are living with dementia and the figure will go up to 75 million by 2030.

Unfortunately, a lot of cases of dementia go unnoticed and untreated because the symptoms often mimic the things that are associated with old age.  Even first world countries have thousands of people that go undiagnosed, and this causes a toll not only on the patient and his family but also on the economy.

Now even though there are many reasons, such as a genetic predisposition, lifestyle, and other such factors that have been known to contribute towards dementia, the one thing we will focus on today is ADHD.  However, before we can hope to look at the connection between the two mental diseases, it is imperative that you have an idea about what they are.

ADHD

Not too long ago, ADHD or attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder was thought to affect children alone.  The National Institutes of Health tells that even though most of the 8-12% children experience a decline in symptoms, almost 4% carry through the signs later in life.  Though there are some factors which act as contributors in ADHD such as genes, exposure to environmental toxins, low birth weight, and brain injuries, the exact cause has not yet been identified.

Nevertheless, though the DSM-5 lists down the criteria for ADHD diagnosis, some symptoms you can look for at a glance are:

  • Inattention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Irritability
  • Disorganization
  • Low persistence
  • Impulsivity

The typical child with ADHD will find it challenging to focus on any given task, will be hyperactive, and will have difficulties in academics and personal relationships.  They will also often display erratic behavior in social settings and other such crowded places.

On the other hand, even though adults with ADHD will have a chaotic lifestyle, they may not experience the same levels of hyperactivity as children.  Some of these adult patients may be substance abusers and have problems managing and self-organization because they cannot prioritize the tasks ahead of them.

Dementia and its types

Dementia is a loose term that’s used to define memory loss and cognitive impairment of several levels. Some of the most common kinds of dementia are Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia with Lewy Bodies, Huntington’s disease, and vascular dementia.  Though each of these diseases come with their own set of symptoms, some signs such as reduced concentration, memory loss, increased confusion, and depression are common to all.  This is why it is often challenging to detect one over the other, and it is advisable to take an online Alzheimers test first.  If you or a loved one is faced with these symptoms and think that you might improve the condition by identifying the issue earlier, it is vital that you take online tests and consult a professional for diagnosis.

The type of dementia which is linked with ADHD is that with Lewy Bodies, also known as DLB. Known as the 2nd most common type of dementia, DLB can sometimes look like Parkinson’s.  Both diseases present as microscopic abnormalities in the nerve cells called Lewy bodies and patients face movement problems, experience hallucinations, cognitive issues, and eventually a difficulty in carrying out daily life.

However, one thing that helps in setting the two apart is that while patients with Parkinson’s hallucinate due to the side-effects of medication, hallucinations are some of the early signs in patients with DLB.  In a nutshell, people who present motor difficulties before cognitive impairment are diagnosed with Parkinson’s and those that face mental problems before motor symptoms often have dementia with Lewy bodies.

So, now that you have in-depth knowledge of both of these diseases let’s look at some of the most research that shows a link between them.

Studies

One of the first studies that detected a connection between ADHD and dementia was conducted in 2011 by Dr. Angel Golimstok and associates at the Hospital Italiano Buenos Aires in Argentina.  The researchers hypothesized that ADHD could be the first step towards pathway disorders and that the problem may worsen and degenerate over a long time and result in a type of dementia.

The study used 360 patients with dementia among which 109 had Lewy bodies, and 251 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and 149 healthy controls who were matched according to age, sex, and education.  The results of the research showed that 48% of patients with DLB had also previously suffered from ADHD symptoms and were 3x more likely to develop dementia.  The analyses behind the study concluded that there is a link between ADHD and dementia because both diseases showcase problematic neurotransmitter pathways.

Another recent Taiwanese research which was conducted in June 2017 and published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found was adults with ADHD had a higher chance of developing dementia. The study focused on the data given to them by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance and picked out 675 adults between the ages of 18 to 54 who have previously been diagnosed with ADHD.

Other than these patients, the research also included a control group of more than 2,000 people who didn’t have ADHD. The survey, which was conducted over a 10-year period showed that adults who were diagnosed with ADHD earlier were 3.4 times likelier to be diagnosed with a form of dementia.

However, both of these studies are not without their limitations.  For instance, while a link between ADHD and dementia with Lewy bodies was found in the Argentina research, not all patients were diagnosed correctly with ADHD.  Instead, the researchers focused on ADHD, dementia, and Alzheimer’s symptoms which were at times narrated by close friends and family instead of the patient.  This might have caused inconsistencies because the signs aren’t always as they seem and what the onlooker thinks may be very different from how the patient feels.

The Taiwanese study’s researchers also noted that their research had several limitations. The data pool from where the information was extracted consisted of material with insurance claims.  Though it had information about people diagnosed with ADHD or dementia, it didn’t throw light on the family history, education or the lifestyle of the participants.

Wrapping up

Research and studies about mental disorders, their causes and treatments are being conducted at an exponential rate. Though there’s still some stigma attached to it, people around the world are becoming more open to such diseases and striving to manage the symptoms. However, research on the link between ADHD and dementia is still fresh, and although a couple of investigations have found a connection, a lot more data and studies are required to reach a scientific conclusion.

ABOUT Alycia Gordan

Alycia Gordan is a freelance writer who loves to read and write articles on healthcare technology, fitness and lifestyle.  She is a tech junkie and divides her time between travel and writing.  You can find her on Twitter: @meetalycia

3 Replies to “ADHD and Dementia: what is the connection?”

  1. Thanks to Tim Mitchell for this emailed comment & for agreeing to have it posted. – David, Customer Support.

    “On further research, there is much crossover between the symptoms of MCI and ADHD, but they act on the brain in totally different ways.

    The MCI is a degenerative thing which often turns into dementia, and because of the sources of information about a specific patient and the age of the patients. It is impossible to separate those with ADHD and MCI, and therefore there is no way to make an honest or scientifically responsible connection between ADHD and Dementia.

    There is no sign that the symptoms of ADHD get worse with age, however with MCI that is not the case.

    There is a good paper which shows the weaknesses of current connections between ADHD and Dementia which you may want to mention to your readers, or write a short message about. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00260/full

    It is just too early to suggest that those with ADHD are significantly more likely to develop Dementia, the good evidence just isn’t there.

    It is important to encourage a healthy lifestyle and diet which includes things that have been shown to support brain health into old age, but we have to be careful to not generate fear in people without conclusive evidence.

    Keep up the good work Rick,

    Kind Regards,

    Tim Mitchell.”

  2. Thank you for this excellent article, as well as the follow-up comment. The latter brought me a degree of comfort.

    I say that because as a 62–almost 63-year-old, I find my symptoms of AD/HD have gotten worse over the years. I know that females can suffer worse symptoms with the onset of peri-menopause and post-menopause. However, I would think that by my age, neither would be a factor.

    My ability to focus, be organized, initiate activities, follow complex discussions, etc., have all declined over the last decade. Hence, why I fear dementia down the road.

    Could there be complicating factors other than dementia? I know that anxiety and depression can exacerbate symptoms (I have both, but have them partially in check). I’m assuming others have similar experiences. So, I don’t expect someone to hand me a diagnosis! I just want to spur more discussion.

  3. I find that on the days when I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, my ADHD symptoms are the worst. I may as well not even take my meds on those days, because I still can’t think, can’t remember, can’t make a decision, etc. If I miss sleep several nights in a row, pretty common for me now, then my brain is pretty much toast. I think a large part of the problem is also because our lives at this stage are in transition, and that’s unsettling. We’re either in retirement or thinking about it. We’re starting to eye that bank account, wondering if it will be enough. Body starting to change, getting stiffer, more sore, and we’re getting less exercise. Energy patterns shift. We’re worried about the country, politics, the earth – all causing more anxiety. There is an acronym that applies to us, that is often quoted by recovering alcoholics: HALT — means don’t let yourself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired. They all affect us negatively. So meditate more, sleep more, be better to ourselves, take better care of ourselves — all that and more. And I need to be sure to take my own advice, eh?

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