Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that makes it difficult for you to focus and follow through with various tasks. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it affects roughly 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a rare form of dementia more common among adults ages 45 to 64. FTD isn’t just one disorder, but a range of disorders that include:

  • behavior variant FTD, which affects personality and behavior
  • primary progressive aphasia, which affects language skills and comprehension
  • movement disorders

Some people have more than one type of FTD. The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration reports that FTD affects around 60,000 people in the United States.

ADHD and FTD have some overlapping symptoms. Research also suggests that having ADHD may raise the risk of all types of dementia, including FTD.

Read on to learn more about the link between ADHD and FTD.

ADHD and FTD both affect the same regions of the brain. A 2017 study used MRI to reveal that young people with ADHD have some structural differences in the frontal lobes and other regions of the brain compared with similar individuals without ADHD.

As its name suggests, neuron damage in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes is what causes FTD. The frontal lobes are responsible for many brain functions, including:

  • emotion
  • impulse control
  • memory
  • problem solving
  • social interaction

ADHD and FTD have some common symptoms, like impulse behavior and difficulty making decisions.

Another 2017 study looking at the similarities between ADHD and FTD suggests that the overlapping deficits in attention, executive functioning, and other brain functions indicate that ADHD may be a risk factor for FTD.

Most other types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, tend to develop later in life. But FTD tends to show up at a younger age, sometimes as early as a person’s 20s. Doctors often diagnose ADHD in childhood, but it may also present more clearly in early adulthood.

With ADHD, typical symptoms include difficulty paying attention and being easily distracted. Starting a complicated task can seem overwhelming. With ADHD, you may be more inclined to interrupt others and remain calm in a quiet setting.

Adults with ADHD may have problems keeping a job and maintaining healthy relationships.

Symptoms of most dementias include declines in memory (especially short-term memory) and thinking skills. Some common signs of dementia include:

  • confusion
  • trouble communicating
  • difficulty making decisions and managing basic responsibilities, like paying bills or keeping up with your medications
  • repeating questions
  • wandering and getting lost in familiar areas

FTD symptoms often don’t involve memory at first. They often involve personality and behavior changes, like:

  • apathy
  • impaired judgment and reckless behavior
  • impulsive speech and actions
  • lack of empathy
  • reduced self-awareness

Some types of FTD can affect your ability to speak, write, or understand what’s being said.

Diagnosing ADHD

No one test or screening method can confirm ADHD. Instead, a mental health professional or physician will look at the number and severity of symptoms.

ADHD has three presentations:

  • predominantly hyperactive-impulsive: includes symptoms like difficulty remaining seated, excessive talking, difficulty awaiting turns, extreme restlessness, fidgeting
  • predominantly inattentive: includes symptoms like difficulty sustaining attention, difficulty with organization, forgetful in daily activities, easy distraction, and avoidance or dislike of tasks requiring sustained mental effort
  • combined: which includes symptoms of inattentive and hyperactive ADHD presentations

You must show at least five symptoms from one or more presentations to be diagnosed with ADHD.

Diagnosing FTD

Diagnosing dementia usually involves the following:

  • brain imaging and lab tests
  • mental status exam, which tests:
    • memory
    • ability to follow instructions
    • awareness of time and place
    • other brain functions
  • physical examination
  • review of personal and family medical histories

Depending on what type of dementia a doctor suspects, the specific mental status exams and imaging tests may differ. With FTD, for example, a doctor may ask about personality changes, often relying on a friend or family member to discuss concerning behaviors.

Doctors often use MRI and glucose positron emission scans to diagnose FTD.

How to tell them apart

In later adulthood, there may be some question as to whether a person has ADHD or early dementia. It’s helpful to consider if symptoms have been present since childhood or if they developed later in life.

For most adults with ADHD, there were signs of the condition when they were young. The first symptoms of ADHD seldom emerge in adulthood. An older person with new symptoms is more likely to be experiencing cognitive decline.

To diagnose ADHD or FTD, a doctor will also need to rule out other conditions, including:

  • mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety
  • sleep disorders
  • brain injury
  • drug use
  • medication side effects

In mild cases of ADHD, the condition does not significantly interfere with work, relationships, or everyday responsibilities. If that’s the case, you may not need treatment.

You might work with a mental health professional who specializes in ADHD care to develop strategies to block out distractions and improve focus.

Such strategies are also helpful for people with more severe ADHD who also need medications. ADHD medications include stimulants and nonstimulants.

Stimulants include:

Non-stimulants include:

Like ADHD, options for treating dementia depend on your condition’s severity. Unfortunately, no cures or medications can halt the progression of dementia. Certain medications, like cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, can sometimes help preserve brain function or slow cognitive decline.

Other therapies for dementia involve activities that stimulate your brain, like art and music, and approaches to help individuals stay calm and enjoy a certain quality of life.

Does having ADHD as a child increase my risk for dementia as an adult?

Your risk of developing some form of dementia is slightly higher if you have ADHD. But many factors contribute to your risk.

Genetics and lifestyle are two important factors. Age is the single biggest factor for dementia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 5 million Americans over the age of 65 have dementia.

Can ADHD medication cause dementia?

Proper use of ADHD medications, like Adderal and Ritalin, is not associated with a greater risk of dementia.

But a 2018 study suggests that abuse of Adderall by people who do not need the drug is associated with at least temporary memory problems. Healthy college students sometimes take Adderall to heighten their focus when studying, and others take it for work or recreational purposes.

Can ADHD medication treat dementia?

ADHD medications are not approved for dementia treatment. But a small 2021 study suggests that at least one ADHD drug — atomoxetine (Strattera) — led to a minor reduction in levels of tau proteins. An abnormal buildup of tau in the brain is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

More research is needed before atomoxetine or any other ADHD medication becomes an approved dementia treatment.

Does ADHD get worse with age?

ADHD symptoms vary a lot among people. Some people essentially “outgrow” it in adulthood, possibly due to adopting helpful strategies. Others with ADHD find their symptoms worsen over time, especially if they don’t receive appropriate treatment.

Some ADHD symptoms overlap with those associated with mild cognitive impairment. This can make it difficult to discern when attention problems result from ADHD or age-related changes in brain function.

ADHD can present challenges for people young and old, but with patience and treatment, it can often be a manageable condition. While having ADHD may raise your risk of dementia slightly, there are other factors that you can control to preserve cognition and brain health.

Living a healthy lifestyle can improve your odds of avoiding cognitive problems later. Whether you’re dealing with ADHD, FTD, or both, the key is to work closely with your healthcare team. If possible, consider including family and friends in your care as well.