Rock Center   |  April 05, 2013

Undiagnosed adult ADHD ‘debilitating’

A growing number of adults are learning they have ADHD after witnessing their own kids get diagnosed. Rock Center’s Kate Snow examines the surprising new face of ADHD.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> surprised a lot of people, these new stats saying 1 in 10 american kids have now been diagnosed with adhd , one in five high school age boys, and the numbers have risen 41% in just the last decade. the big choice facing parents, of course, whether or not to medicate their kids. but how about the growing number of parents and adults in general with full-on adhd themselves? we learn about that tonight from kate snow .

>> reporter: so how long ago did you draw some of these?

>> reporter: bonnie imy also had a talent for drawing. when she was younger, she dreamed of being an architect.

>> is that an outdoor path and a gazebo?

>> reporter: but her whole life, she felt distracted in class. she eventually let the dream go. she started cleaning houses. life was a constant juggling act, and with two kids, it was even more overwhelming.

>> i kept dropping the ball all the time. it was so hard to remember that the library books need to be handed back a certain day, they had to have their tennis shoes that day.

>> were things like that falling through the cracks , bonnie?

>> uh-huh.

>> reporter: a lot?

>> yes. i would really try hard to pull it all together, but when you're late for a christmas concert that your daughter was really looking forward to going to and we get there and her class is walking back to the classroom, and the tears in her eyes, you try harder .

>> reporter: her son jacob seemed to have inherited her lack of focus. he was struggling in school.

>> he would do the homework for hours after school, and he would get the homework done and forget to hand it in.

>> reporter: a specialist diagnosed jacob with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder , adhd . bonnie learned it's often genetic and started to think maybe it was her issue, too.

>> reporter: you were thinking about when you were his age.

>> yes, when i was his age. and third grade was really difficult. and i was sad for him because i struggled so hard. i knew i was bright, and so some things that they were teaching, i was higher than the rest of the class. but then i would struggle with a lot of the other things and wondered what was wrong with me.

>> reporter: bonnie went through the same kind of testing her son did, and at age 42, she, too, was diagnosed with adhd . doctors believe as many as 4% of adults have adhd . many of them go undiagnosed. but that's changing as more and more adults become aware of the disorder. clinical psychologist richelle klein of new york university is one of the pioneers in the field. she says adult adhd is a mixture of difficulties that starts in childhood.

>> the person has difficulty organizing. they're overwhelmed by the details of life, and they neglect them.

>> reporter: but as an adult, when i look at the list of symptoms for adhd , i feel like i could qualify for that, but i don't think i have adhd . what's the difference between someone who occasionally is forgetful and distracted versus someone who has adhd ?

>> fussif you said that you can't read anything more than a few paragraphs in a magazine, that you cannot read the instructions to do something so that your life is affected, you cannot pay attention to conversations. in other words, it has to impair you.

>> reporter: for some, the impairment can have devastating consequences. in a landmark study, klein started following more than 200 boys with adhd in 1969 when they were around 8, through adolescence and into adulthood and compared them to a group that did not have adhd as children. the boys were put on medication at first but stopped taking it as teenagers because that was standard treatment at that time. when you checked in with them 33 years later, what did you find?

>> i'll give you the bad news first. compared to the kids without adhd , these children had more often died, and many more had been in jail. many more had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, mostly drug abuse .

>> reporter: no one knows if staying on medication might have made a difference for the boys, but almost a third of them dropped out of high school . on average they made less money and their divorce rate was higher. that's no big news flash for frank south. he, too, has adhd . years ago his first marriage failed but he kept trying.

>> reporter: you were engaged five times in three years?

>> yeah. and the fifth time i married her.

>> reporter: how long did that marriage last?

>> another year and a half like the first one.

>> reporter: eventually he settled down with his third wife margaret and had two kids. but even something as simple as picking up paper towels for his daughter's basketball team could throw off his whole day.

>> i end up in costco going through things i'm not even going to buy and the time goes by so fast that i find it so interesting.

>> reporter: what do you find interesting?

>> this stuff is freeze dried granola. that is amazing. you know, there are those flat screens i was thinking about. and then you're off. you weren't even there to get that, you're supposed to get that big thing of paper towels and take it to the coach because he said we need paper towels .

>> reporter: you're making me laugh but it's not funny. it's your life and it's debilitating.

>> yeah, but the thing is, before your diagnosis and before you understand these things, you think, i'm just a jerk. and you feel like, i'm also not very bright if i can't just go get a 12-pack of paper towels and bring them to the basketball coach without being two hours late.

>> reporter: the one thing frank could concentrate on was writing. he made a career working for hit series like " hill street blues ," cagney & lacey ." his big break , "mel rorose place." he made it all wait to executive producer, but he was never comfortable in those high ranked circles.

>> adhd convinces you you do not have the tools to get this far. you're out there flying pretending you're an eagle and you're really just a guy with fake wings .

>> reporter: frank says it didn't help that he was drinking too much to quiet his negative thinking. fired from " melrose place ," it fell through and he hit bottom.

>> you start thinking, what am i taking on here, and people are ge defending me. i went to some docs.

>> reporter: frank sought out those doctors, because like bonnie imy, he had just seen his son harry improve greatly after being diagnosed and going on medication for adhd . that's when frank got his diagnosis and daughter katherine wasn't far behind .

>> with mom it's like, say it clear. what? say it again? then i have to say it once and he'll understand.

>> reporter: almost like you have a secret code or something.

>> yeah.

>> reporter: margaret is the only one in the family that doesn't have adhd .

>> reporter: frank says sometimes you describe life with him as a roller coaster.

>> oh, yes, and that has enrich enriched my life tremendously because i'm not with someone linear who can think in a normal fashion, and i have to work harder at something he's saying. but once he says it, i'm blown away by the wisdom of it.

>> reporter: dr. klein says the public still needs a better education on this disorder.

>> this is a brain disorder . it's not something that you can control because you feel like it or you want to please somebody.

>> reporter: it's inate. it's inside you.

>> yes. it's part of who you are physiologically.

>> reporter: scientists can actually see those differences in the brain. as part of klein 's long-term study, her colleague analyzed 139 brain scans when the men were in their 40s.

>> this gives us all three-dimensional views.

>> reporter: what he found was astonishing. the brains of people who had adhd were thinner in areas that seemed to control attention and govern emotion.

>> reporter: you're not saying these are dramatic differences.

>> cannotlexactly. these are difference of less than a tenth of a millimeter, and yet that's a lot of brain cells .

>> reporter: those minute differences is further convincing that adhd is a condition, although some doctors may be overdiagnosing it.

>> critics have said adhd is something manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry in order to sell products. what do you say to that?

>> i know that's not the case. i understand the cynicism. as psychiatrists, we can be fooled. i think it's more the other way around, that there are still many people walking around who have adhd and are being impaired by it and they don't even know it.

>> reporter: but can the impairment be overcome? remember, dr. klein started with the bad news out of their study? well, here's the good news.

>> we have a large number of people who have done very well in life, who have had stable jobs, who have been promoted throughout their career and have loving, caring relationships.

>> reporter: not only are they doing well in life, more than half the men they studied who were diagnosed with adhd as kids don't have adhd today. and there is tentative evidence in their brain scans that people who overcame their adhd were able to build up some of the thinner areas of their brains.

>> our guess is that they've compensated, and that this is something that's occurred through living, in a sense, because we know that life changes your brain.

>> reporter: casteanos and klein says there's no way to know why some people overcome adhd and others don't. they believe the earlier you start treating the disorder, the better, but treatment can help at any age.

>> the good news is as long as you're alive, your brain is still working and still potentially rewiring itself. and so it's never too late.

>> reporter: frank south was almost 50 by the time he was diagnosed with adhd and went on medication. he says he finally feels like himself.

>> it was like a big window opening up on your brain. and sunlight coming in. and being able to breathe and be calm enough to understand. and the fear and the anxiety level went down.

>> reporter: he even found a way to use adhd in a one-man show.

>> i thought for sure i lost my cell phone this time, but it turned out i put it in the kara head of time so i won't forget it.

>> reporter: bonnie imy now takes medication every day and sees a big difference.

>> i haven't felt joy in many things for so long, and i truly didn't know what joy was, and passion, because i always just felt stressed out.

>> reporter: that's huge what you're saying. you have lost the joy in your life.

>> yeah.

>> reporter: and it's back.

>> uh-huh. i laugh at the kids, i want to do more with them. i feel much better.

>> kate snow with our reporting