Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), those living with ADHD experience a wide range of symptoms. Since ADHD is experienced differently in each individual, they’re often living with a unique combination of these symptoms.
The DSM-5 lists three major symptom categories when diagnosing ADHD -- inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. They group impulsivity and hyperactivity, so there are two major symptom categories. Each category has nine potential symptoms listed.
If an individual experiences six or more symptoms under the inattentiveness category, they’re diagnosed as a predominantly inattentive type (ADHD-PI). If they experience six or more symptoms under the hyperactivity/impulsivity category, they’re diagnosed as a predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type (ADHD-HI).
Individuals can also be diagnosed with ADHD-C, commonly referred to as combined type. These individuals experience six or more symptoms in both categories.
Of all the symptoms listed, there are two that many people are often surprised to see listed -- often losing personal items and often forgetful in daily activities. These two symptoms lead many people to wonder if there’s a link between ADHD and memory loss.
So, is there a link between ADHD and memory loss?
Researchers and scientists have learned a great deal about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. While research is ongoing today, they’ve found one major link between ADHD and memory -- though it’s not necessarily linked to memory loss.
Today, researchers believe ADHD impacts the way we utilize or manipulate our memory instead of impacting our ability to store and maintain a memory. That’s why individuals living with ADHD often don’t have any problem with their short-term or long-term memory.
That means they’re able to recall certain things like words, numbers, instructions, and other pieces of information our brains receive. We need to use this information and apply it to a certain task where those living with ADHD start to struggle.
Many people refer to this type of memory as working memory, which is where the link between ADHD and memory begins.
Working Memory And ADHD
Working memory is a type of short-term memory that allows us to manipulate information that we receive in-the-moment. It’s an extremely important process that happens instantly and consistently throughout the day.
To put it simply, working memory allows you to use newly-stored information in your short-term memory bank while in the middle of an activity. For example, your working memory is responsible for remembering someone’s house's address while receiving the house's instructions.
Here are some more examples of working memory:
- Trying to write down someone’s phone number as they read it to you.
- Writing down notes in class while a teacher is lecturing the class.
- Being able to prepare a meal while talking to someone on the phone.
- Adding your groceries up while you shop to ensure you stay under budget.
We utilize working memory a lot when learning new concepts and piecing together with other concepts. It plays an important role in accessing short-term information, remembering instructions, paying attention, and learning most subjects in school.
In many people living with ADHD, the information that travels from short-term memory banks to long-term memory banks is often disorganized. When disorganized, the information doesn’t hold much meaning and therefore isn’t very useful to the individual. This is often why children living with ADHD are forgetful and make ‘lazy’ mistakes.
It’s important to remember that issues with working memory and ADHD are two completely different conditions. While they are linked in many cases, living with one of the conditions doesn’t always mean you’ll live with the other.
How Else Does ADHD Impact The Brain?
While ADHD is known to impact an individual’s working memory, it’s just one of the many ways ADHD impacts the brain’s ability to function properly. This is evidenced by the variety of studies looking at ADHD’s impact on dopamine levels in the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s largely responsible for our ability to feel pleasure. It also plays a role in reward-motivated behavior. Researchers have revealed that those living with ADHD often have low levels of dopamine in the brain. They believe this is credited to a genetic issue when creating dopamine, but research is ongoing.
Over time, researchers have uncovered several brain regions that are affected by the low dopamine levels -- the basal ganglia, the reticular activating system, the frontal cortex, and the limbic system. Let’s take a closer look at how low dopamine levels affect these regions of the brain:
- Limbic System - located under the cerebrum on both sides of the thalamus. The limbic system plays a large role in our emotions and emotional responses and plays a role in the formation of memories. With low levels of dopamine in the limbic system, individuals often experience restlessness, unstable emotions, and inattentiveness.
- Reticular Activating System - an extremely important network of neural pathways in the brainstem that help connect the cerebrum and cerebellum to the spinal cord. Low levels of dopamine in this region of the brain can cause all three major symptoms of ADHD, including inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
- Basal Ganglia - a group of brain structures that include the caudate, putamen, substantia nigra, subthalamic nucleus, and globus pallidus. When information enters the brain, it heads to this area before being directed to the correct site throughout the brain. With low levels of dopamine, individuals could experience inattention and impulsiveness.
- The frontal cortex is responsible for high-level cognitive functioning, such as attention, planning, problem-solving, and decision making. When this region doesn’t receive enough dopamine, it causes inattentiveness, unorganized behavior, and impaired executive functions.
As you can see, living with ADHD can impact your emotions and behaviors in a wide range of ways. This is a large reason why so many people have different experiences with ADHD and why it’s difficult for doctors and mental health professions to diagnose.
Not only that, but a deficiency of dopamine in one area of the brain could affect the function of another area of the brain -- especially since many regions of the brain are connected and communicate with each other throughout the day.
Lesser-Known Symptoms Of ADHD
We’ve already discussed one of the lesser-known symptoms of ADHD -- that being an issue with working memory. That might lead many to wonder whether or not there are any other lesser-known symptoms of ADHD that are considered when diagnosing the disorder.
The answer to that question is yes, there is a wide range of other symptoms that many people aren’t aware of. Some symptoms are often misdiagnosed in individuals or go undetected altogether.
To ensure you have a deeper understanding of what ADHD is and what people experience when living with ADHD, let’s take a look at five of the other lesser-known symptoms of this disorder:
- Poor Time Management - many people with ADHD either struggle to manage their time effectively, are poor at estimating the time a task will take to complete, or completely forget certain steps that need to be taken when completing certain tasks (which often causes delays).
- Difficulty Controlling Emotions - due to their strong passion, especially over certain activities, those living with ADHD often experience mood swings and have difficulty controlling emotions. Unlike bipolar disorder, these mood swings are generally triggered by events they’re passionate about.
- Addictive Personalities - due to their lower self-esteem, impulsiveness, and heightened response to dopamine release in the brain, many people living with ADHD are also known to have addictive personalities.
- Sleep Issues - many people living with ADHD also find it difficult to follow a routine sleep schedule. Some might have difficulty falling asleep, some might struggle to stay asleep, and others might have issues waking up regularly.
- Depression & Anxiety - nearly half of all adults living with ADHD also suffer from depression, including 14 percent of children living with ADHD. Many doctors misdiagnose ADHD as depression.
Understanding the major symptoms and lesser-known symptoms of ADHD is critical to detecting the disorder early enough to make an impact. Of course, you should keep in mind that none of these symptoms mean you have ADHD -- they just cause for concern when the other major symptoms are present as well.
The sooner ADHD is detected in an individual, the sooner that individual can start receiving the proper help needed.
Are There Any ADHD Misconceptions?
In addition to understanding the many symptoms behind attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, we must clear up any misconceptions behind ADHD. We touched base on one of those misconceptions above when we discussed ADHD and memory loss.
As we now know, ADHD doesn’t cause memory loss, but it can result in issues with an individual’s working memory and how they utilize their memory.
To ensure you don’t have the wrong idea of what ADHD is or what it’s characterized by, let’s take a look at some of the most common misconceptions about this disorder:
- One of the biggest misconceptions about ADHD is that it’s only experienced in males. While there are more boys with ADHD than girls, it’s not exclusive to one gender.
- Another common misconception around ADHD is that it’s caused by bad parenting and too much sugar in the diet. These were once believed to be causes, but they aren’t any longer. They can, however, make symptoms worse.
- People with ADHD aren’t lazy, they aren’t unmotivated, and it’s not that they don’t want to pay attention. Instead, people with ADHD experience issues with their brain structure and brain function, which generally causes the symptoms.
- Many people are under the impression that ADHD isn’t a serious condition. Still, it’s one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders globally and is an extremely serious condition.
- The final misconception is that people living with ADHD are always hyperactive. The truth is some experience hyperactive symptoms, some experience impulsivity, some experience inattentiveness, and some experience a combination of all three. It’s different for everyone.
Knowing the truth about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is extremely crucial in today’s society. Not only does it allow you to manage your health and help you detect the symptoms in yourself, but it gives you the knowledge needed to detect it in your loved ones as well.
How Can You Find Help For ADHD?
ADHD is a serious mental health disorder that millions of children and adults experience every year. As more people are diagnosed with the disorder, the disorder's research becomes more important than ever. That’s also why awareness is so crucial when talking about ADHD.
At Mind Diagnostics, we take great pride in offering all the best tools and resources to people living with mental health conditions worldwide. We understand not everyone has access to a doctor or therapist when they need reassurance, but that’s what we’re here for.
We’ve created a series of mental health tests available for free online -- including an adult ADHD test. These tests help you determine your potential risk of developing ADHD and whether or not you should seek further evaluation for your symptoms.
Since many people live with ADHD symptoms without knowing it, you might be surprised by your results. Don’t worry, we have the necessary tools to match you with a proven and experienced mental health professional in your area.
They’ll be able to deep-dive further into your symptoms and direct you towards the right help. Together, we can get you back to the happy and healthy life we all desire!