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What Is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

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What's a parent to do when a child can't pay attention? Learn about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and find out if it's behind your child's forgetfulness.

Your very smart child somehow manages to lose her homework assignment while walking from the car into the house. She forgets to bring the right books home from school. You can send her to her room to get ready for bed, and 30 minutes later find her in another part of the house intrigued by a book or a game. Is she just being willful and refusing to focus? No — she may have ADHD .

Understanding ADHD

It's extremely frustrating for a parent when a child can't pay attention. But for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it's not a conscious decision or an issue of disobedience but rather just the way the child's brain is wired.

ADHD is used to describe a particular set of actions; it's a behavioral disorder that can affect both children and adults.

"The definition [of ADHD] has at its core three primary symptom areas: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity," said Michael Manos, PhD, head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at the Pediatric Institute of the Cleveland Clinic.

These primary symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may appear as distinct behavior patterns, such as chronic forgetfulness, always being disorganized, unable to finish projects, and unable to sit still.

Nearly anyone may have such symptoms on occasion, but in people with ADHD, it's constant and persistent, and, said Manos, "it's associated with dysfunction." These symptoms can really interfere with life and the ability to succeed socially, academically, and professionally .

What’s going on internally in people with ADHD? Everyone has two basic kinds of attention: fascination and directed attention. "Fascination is sort of the natural state of the brain," said Manos. "The natural state is to be interested in something." On the other hand, directed attention is what you use when you

have to do something that you don't enjoy and will suffer consequences by not doing it, like getting a bad grade for not studying.

For people with ADHD, the directed attention is what's challenging. It's not that they don't try or don't want to do things that they know they need to do. They just can't do it, and get easily distracted by something — anything — that's more interesting to them.

ADHD By the Numbers

Here are statistics on how many children are affected by ADHD today, according to the CDC:

  • Right now, over 6 million American children have gotten an ADHD diagnosis
  • Approximately 11 percent of all American school-aged children have gotten an ADHD diagnosis, and the percentage continues to increase
  • 13 percent of boys are diagnosed with ADHD
  • 5 percent of girls are diagnosed with ADHD
  • A parent with ADHD has a 50 percent chance of having a child with the same condition

Causes and Risk Factors of ADHD

It's unknown exactly what causes ADHD or what the particular risk factors are. Research shows that there's most likely a genetic link. Some of the potential causes and risk factors that are currently being studied include:

  • Being underweight at birth
  • Exposure to toxins in the environment, like lead
  • Being delivered prematurely
  • Use of alcohol and tobacco while pregnant
  • An injury to the brain

What doesn't lead to ADHD is too much television or sugar, too many hours playing video games, food additives or preservatives. or family issues like financial hardship or family instability.

Although it's hard to predict who will develop ADHD or exactly why it occurs, the good news is that it can be well managed with therapy and perhaps some medication. With treatment, the prognosis for people with ADHD is good — they can lead extremely successful lives once they learn how to manage the disorder.

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