ADHD and Memory: What to Know


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ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a cognitive condition that is usually diagnosed during childhood. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD.

People with ADHD experience and process information differently than people who are neurotypical. If you have the condition, you may feel that forgetfulness tends to occur more often, and you may find tasks that require using short-term memory more challenging. ADHD can also impact the way that your long-term memory functions.

Researchers are still working to understand the exact impact of ADHD on memory for children and adults. Let’s take a look at what we know so far.

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can cause adults and children to have difficulty focusing.

People with ADHD may appear to be inattentive at times and forget important things more often. This is defined as inattentive type ADHD. They may also interrupt or express disruptive behavior more often. This is known as hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD.

The most common version of ADHD is a combination of these symptoms, known as combined hyperactive-impulsive/inattentive type.

ADHD is not autism

ADHD is not the same as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a separate condition according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5).

It is possible to have both conditions, but each has a distinct set of diagnostic criteria. Associated behaviors may also manifest themselves differently even among individuals with one or both conditions.

Each of these types of ADHD results from a biological cause related to brain activity. The frontal lobe of the brain, which steers your impulse control, attentiveness, and memory, seems to develop more slowly if you have ADHD.

ADHD and working memory

Working memory is the small amount of information that your mind holds as you’re working to complete a task.

Think of it as the part of your brain that holds a phone number while you’re dialing it. Working memory holds a little bit of data at a time while you work on completing something, “copying” the data from one place and “pasting” it in another place before forgetting whatever it was.

One 2020 studyTrusted Source showed that ADHD impacts working memory in the majority of children who have it. A 2013 research review supported the idea that this impact continues into adulthood.

Working memory is strongly associated with intelligence and learning ability, so people with ADHD may be unfairly assessed in terms of what they are capable of learning. Without a strong working memory, it becomes important to develop coping skills and alternative learning strategies that rely less on that function of the brain.

ADHD may also impact the way that children’s brains perceive time itself. Time perception is linked to working memory. This may also explain part of why people with ADHD experience more challenges getting to places on time.

small 2007 study looked at time perception in 40 children with ADHD and 40 children without ADHD. Children with ADHD had more difficulty perceiving the difference between a short, medium, and long duration of time.

ADHD and long-term memory

What’s less understood is ADHD’s effect on long-term memory and memory loss.

2013 research review looked at medical literature that studied adults with ADHD. The authors concluded that ADHD tends to limit long-term memory abilities more often. But that research review also suggested that this limitation results from learning disabilities caused by ADHD, not necessarily from the impact of ADHD on your brain.

In other words, the research review suggested that kids with ADHD tend to experience challenges developing the same long-term memory skills as kids without ADHD, which can then carry over into adulthood without additional coping or compensation mechanisms.

The relationship between ADHD and memory loss is another area of uncertainty in the ADHD research literature.

2017 research reviewTrusted Source showed that researchers are not clear on whether having ADHD as an adult puts you at a higher risk for developing dementia or other cognitive disorders relating to memory earlier in life.

ADHD and dementia appear to impact the brain in similar ways, making this a complicated question with many variables. The 2017 research reviewTrusted Source above discussed the overlapping symptoms of ADHD and a type of dementia called mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Due to the difficulty in distinguishing the exact cause of MCI and ADHD symptoms like forgetfulness occurring more often or experiencing difficulty focusing for extended periods, the line between ADHD and dementia symptoms in adulthood can often be unclear.

Some ADHD-related behaviors can be modified with lifestyle adjustments that can help you better adjust to the rhythms of work and home life.

  • Try to avoid certain ingredients in your diet. FD&C Red No. 40 (a food coloring ingredient) and sodium benzoate have been linked to increased hyperactive behaviors in children.
  • Try avoiding allergy triggers that can affect brain function. If you suspect that allergen exposure makes ADHD symptoms worse, consider getting an allergy test to help avoid triggers.
  • Look into ADHD management tools. Try an app or calendar that tracks dates and times for events, a key-dropping bin, or a charging station where devices can be stored. These can help reduce the stress you might feel trying to remember everything you need to.
  • Consider cutting out caffeine. Try replacing caffeinated beverages with an herbal brew that uses calming ingredients. Ginseng and chamomile tea may be a good swap for starting your mornings off focused and refreshed. Some research suggests that drinking tea can improve your memory.
  • Take a look at herbal supplements. These types of supplements may help you reduce the stress you may experience from ADHD behaviors.

These tips aren’t a replacement for an action plan for treatment that you make with a doctor or ADHD specialist, but they can help with behaviors or memory issues that you find interfere with your daily activities.

Medication to manage ADHD-related behaviors may also work to improve your working memory. These medications aim to improve your focus and make daily tasks feel less intimidating.

Medication

Stimulant medication is widely prescribed to treat ADHD.

small 2012 studyTrusted Source showed that stimulant medication may help strengthen the connectivity in your frontal cortex with other parts of your brain, helping with working memory.

Methylphenidate (Daytrana) and Dexmethylphenidate (Focalin) are two drugs that have been studied for their effect on working memory, according to the same small 2012 studyTrusted Source above.

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another form of treatment for ADHD.

CBT aims to change your thought patterns to help you manage your emotions and behaviors. CBT may be able to improve behaviors related to your time perception and working memory, such as helping you be on time for events.

CBT may also help with goal-setting, planning, and execution of tasks. These are all related to your working memory.

At times, people with ADHD experience challenges remembering certain things because they experience and process information differently.

If the person who is experiencing challenges with memory loss is a child, the symptom may improve as their brain continues its natural development. This symptom of ADHD may also be modified or improved with a successful treatment or management plan developed with a medical professional.

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