"Nobody really knows (the cause)," said Dr. Tom Sult. "We know their brains work differently. They process information on a different set of pathways."
"The brain is not really connecting," added Donna Bahr, a doctor of psychology who is the director of psychology at the Paynesville Area Health Care System. "It's like having a three-ring circus going on in your brain all the time. They're very sensitive to stimuli."
Complex tasks become difficult because ADD kids may focus on just one aspect of the problem, forgetting the rest. Dr. Bahr said a common chore like cleaning the garage might seem overwhelming. For an ADD child, the task may need to be broken into smaller steps, like picking up the floor, putting the tools away, and finally sweeping the floor.
Dr. Sult believes attention deficit is an exaggeration of a trait that is extremely beneficial in primitive societies. "Kids with ADD and ADHD are extremely aware of their surroundings and can focus intensely on what interests them," he said. It's not that they're not paying attention; they're paying attention to other things.
People with ADD and ADHD are commonly treated with drugs. A stimulant, Ritalin, is frequently prescribed. "It has sort of a paradoxical affect in ADHD kids where it calms them down so they can focus," said Dr. Bahr. Other stimulants are used as well as some anti-depressants.
Dr. Sult said he tries to stabilize the condition with medication and then tries to identify triggers that may cause it. He believes the genetic predisposition to the condition is amplified by our environment: thousands of food additives, lack of nutrition, and the amount of hybrid foods that increase allergic reactions. An alteration of diet, for example, can relieve the symptoms.
ADD and ADHD affect people of all intelligence levels. Being easily distracted, even bright kids with it can have problems in school, though. One problem is homework, with kids forgetting to do it, turn it in, or to bring home books to study.
At least 50 students in the Paynesville school system have ADD or ADHD, according to Beth Realdsen, school nurse. Her office treats that many students each day. There are others who either don't need daily medication or who don't need a dose during the school day.
"I think in years past they weren't diagnosed," said Realdsen. "We definitely have more now."
While the names ADD and ADHD may sound new, the condition is not. "Is it new or newly recognized?" asked Dr. Sult. "In other words, are all those troublemakers of the past ADD?"
"I think years ago the kids were just identified as troublemakers," said Dr. Bahr.
The prognosis for people with ADD and ADHD could be better. "The vast majority of these kids are labeled Ôlosers' in schools," said Dr. Sult. They may attempt to self-medicate and "end up under the bridge drinking and smoking." That can lead to other at-risk behaviors.
ADD and ADHD can be a challenge for a lifetime. Where previously kids were thought to outgrow the condition, now research is showing that many adults still are affected. That could amount to as many as seven million American adults.
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