Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has the power to trigger poor attention, high impulsivity, and forgetfulness. These symptoms begin in childhood and can last a lifetime. Like with other mental health disorders, there is good evidence to suggest ADHD is genetic, but multiple factors influence who has the condition.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD is a complex mental health condition that produces a range of symptoms that impact a person’s performance at home, work, and school. With ADHD, completing simple tasks, following directions, trying to focus, and sitting still can seem like extreme challenges. As the name suggests, ADHD has the ability to produce problems with lower levels of attention and higher levels of hyperactivity.1
People may have both hyperactive and inattentive symptoms, or they could have only one or the other. The diagnosis and treatments will depend on the form of ADHD a person displays.
The inattentive symptoms of ADHD include:
- Struggling to pay attention and being distracted easily
- Making simple mistakes
- Being forgetful and often losing things
- Avoiding tasks that are time-consuming or not stimulating
- Failing to listen to instructions
- Appearing disorganized
The hyperactive symptoms of ADHD include:1
- Being unable to sit still
- Talking excessively
- Interrupting and struggling to take turns
- Acting impulsively
- Engaging in risky or dangerous activities
Is ADHD Genetic?
ADHD is genetic. Experts know this because they have discovered that people with ADHD tend to have relatives with ADHD.2 Further studies show that father’s who had an ADHD diagnosis during their youth were likely to have children with ADHD.3
Though the genetic relationship with ADHD is strong, it is not 100%. Not every parent with ADHD will have a child with ADHD. For example, only about 33% of men with ADHD will see ADHD in their child.3
Scientists involved in studying the human genome have been applying this information to learning more about ADHD. At this point in the study, there seems to be several genes that interact with ADHD. Unfortunately, none seem to control a large portion of the condition, which means a group of genes could each contribute to the condition.2
So, heredity plays an important role in the development of ADHD, but other factors must play a significant role as well. By gaining a better understanding of the interactions between genetics and various factors, experts can develop a clearer picture.
What Else Contributes to the Development of ADHD?
There are genetic and hereditary influences on the presentation of ADHD; however, they are not totally responsible for the disorder. So, if you’re asking “Is ADHD genetic” or “Is ADHD hereditary.” know there are other factors that contribute to its development, including brain structure, early development, life experiences, and exposure to toxins.3
Brain Functioning & Structure
The brains of people with ADHD tend to work differently than people without the condition. To begin, it seems that a shortage of a certain neurotransmitter called dopamine can lead to ADHD.3 Also, certain brain areas are smaller on average in people with ADHD than people without ADHD.
The areas that seem connected to ADHD are:3
- Prefrontal cortex
- Basal ganglia
Although it is impossible to say that these differences cause ADHD, the connections are significant.
Pregnancy, Birth, & Early Development
The events of pregnancy and early development can influence the risk for ADHD as well.
Children have an elevated chance of having ADHD if they:4
- Have a low birth weight (children who weigh 3.3 lbs or lower will have about three times the risk of ADHD)
- Were exposed to cigarette smoking in utero.
- Were exposed to alcohol in utero
Again, most children with a low birth weight will not have ADHD, but these exposures have been linked to increased rates of ADHD overtime. The best an expectant mother could do is avoid smoking, avoid alcohol, and seek appropriate prenatal care to help ensure the best outcomes for the baby.
The physical environment a child is exposed to will play a major role in the development of ADHD. These factors are important, but they do not always cause ADHD. Currently, there is only an association between these environmental issues and ADHD.
Negative environmental factors linked to higher rates of ADHD include:4
- A history of abuse and neglect
- Children with multiple foster placements also have a greater risk of ADHD symptoms
- Exposure to toxins like lead and other chemicals used in products frequently found around the home
- Certain childhood infections like encephalitis
- A small number of people with ADHD will see symptoms triggered by certain foods and their overall diet
At present, there is no information that states parenting styles or habits create ADHD. What experts do know is that the way parents interact with their children with ADHD can impact the way symptoms present. Additionally, certain parenting patterns can encourage the development of secondary behavioral and conduct issues.4
Will I Pass Down ADHD to My Kid?
Based on everything experts know about the condition and the heredity connected to it, there is a fair chance of passing ADHD on to your child. Knowing the exact risk of symptoms in your children is currently unknown as so many other factors influence the presentation.
Even though having a child with ADHD may seem like a negative, consider the idea that, as a parent with the same condition, you’ll be in the unique position of understanding what your child is experiencing. With this information, you could help them better manage their symptoms and discuss aspects of the condition from a helpful perspective.
You can also assist with treatment options by establishing helpful routines and schedules. Chances are good that the interventions you found helpful could benefit your child.
Risk Factors for Developing ADHD
Risk factors increase a person’s odds of having a certain mental health condition. When a person’s risk factors are too numerous or too intense, they will overwhelm the protective factors and trigger the condition. The risk factors for developing ADHD (e.g., being born premature, having brain damage, or exposure to harmful substances) overlap greatly with the causes.
Risk factors for developing ADHD include:1,3,4
- Being born prematurely or with low birth weight
- Having epilepsy or brain damage
- Exposure to harmful substances like lead, cigarettes, and alcohol
- Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or neglect
- Functional or structure differences in the brain impacting dopamine levels
- Family history of ADHD
By controlling the changeable risk factors, a person can limit their chances of ADHD symptoms now or in the future.
Can ADHD Be Cured?
Experts do not usually discuss mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety, addictions, and ADHD, in terms of being “cured.” More often, professionals see mental health disorders as conditions that require long-term treatment to manage. When the treatment ends, there is a chance that symptoms could return.
People used to see ADHD as a condition one would “grow out of,” but now, there is a better understanding of how the diagnosis changes over time. Some people may find situations that limit their symptoms while others will require ongoing professional treatments for adult ADHD.
Treatment For ADHD
Whether for adults or children, the best treatments for ADHD typically involve a combination of behavioral therapy and medication management. By treating the condition in these ways, a person gets the biological and psychological assistance they need to improve their daily lives.
Medication management can involve stimulants or non-stimulants:5
- Stimulants: the most commonly prescribed form of ADHD medication. They work by increasing dopamine levels and activating parts of the brain that are underactive.
- Non-stimulants: can help symptoms by targeting other brain chemicals. Non-stimulants can take longer to become effective in the body but are still effective for addressing unwanted ADHD symptoms.
Various therapy options for ADHD are effective, too. People may explore ways to combine several therapy approaches to find the best fit for their situation and needs.
Examples of therapy to help children, adults, and families better manage ADHD are:5
- Behavioral therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Family therapy
Finding a helpful and neurodiversity-affirming therapist can prove challenging at times, but you can ask for a referral from a healthcare provider or search an online therapist directory, where you can sort by specialty and insurance coverage.
Identifying ADHD genes and the hereditary influences behind ADHD does not change the fact that mental health professionals diagnose many people with the condition each day. Fortunately, medications and therapy work very well to manage these symptoms. Living a full, happy, and healthy life with ADHD is always possible.