Having attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may affect your ability to pay attention, manage your impulses, or sit still for long periods of time.

About 6.1 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. It also affects adults. Approximately 4.4 percent of Americans ages 18 to 44 years have been diagnosed with the disorder.

For people with ADHD, it may sometimes feel like the structure of what’s often described as civilized society is too rigid and sedentary.

It’s an understandable viewpoint, considering that for 8 million years, since the earliest human ancestors, we’ve been nomadic people, wandering the earth, hunting wild animals for food.

There was always something new to see and explore.

This may sound like an ideal environment for someone with ADHD, and research may prove that hyperactive hunter-gatherers were indeed better equipped than their peers.

A study conducted at Northwestern University in 2008 examined two communities in Kenya.

One of the communities was still nomadic, while the other had settled into villages. The researchers were able to identify members of the communities who displayed ADHD traits.

Specifically, they examined the DRD4 7R, a genetic variant that researchers say may be linked to novelty-seeking, greater food and substance-use cravings, and ADHD symptoms.

Research showed that members of the nomadic community with ADHD — those who still had to hunt for their food — were better nourished than those without ADHD.

Also, those with the same genetic variant in the village community had more difficulty in the classroom, a major indicator of ADHD in areas with more physical and technical amenities and structured guidelines.

The researchers also noted that unpredictable behavior — recognized as a key characteristic of ADHD — might have been helpful in protecting our ancestors against livestock raids, robberies, and more.

In essence, the traits associated with ADHD likely help more with enhancing hunter-gatherer skills than those of a settler.

Up until about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture, all human beings had to hunt and gather food in order to survive.

Nowadays, most people don’t have to worry about finding food. Instead, for most of the world, it’s a life of classrooms, jobs, and other places that have what general society deems structured codes of behavior.

In evolutionary terms, hunter-gatherers were generalists, in that they needed to know how to do a little bit of everything to survive, which required flexibility and adaptability.

Some study results postulate that nomadic individuals with ADHD fared better and remained more nourished compared to nomadic individuals without ADHD, says psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, MD.

Nomadic individuals with ADHD may have also been able to respond better to unpredictable threats likely due to novelty-seeking, resulting in exposure to various experiences and opportunities to broaden perspectives, she says.

Earlier in our collective history, lessons were passed down to children through play, observation, and informal instruction. Classroom instruction is now considered the norm for most children, which generally requires sitting still.

These educational conditions may work for some children, but they can be especially challenging for those with ADHD.

In order to make modern schools better for children with ADHD, Magavi recommends that educators, parents, and physicians work to enhance the learning experience. She also sees need for more physical activity.

“At many schools, children do not have the ability to take… breaks and partake in physical activities,” she says. She recommends extending recess periods, which would help improve mood and focus.

She also supports interactive learning.

“Children excel academically when learning remains interactive,” says Magavi. “Children would benefit from asking more questions and engaging in open discussions with their peers and teachers.”

ADHD was originally referred to as hyperkinetic impulse disorder. The disorder was first mentioned in 1902 by British pediatrician Sir George Still, who called it “an immoral defect of moral control in children.”

It wasn’t until 1968 that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) formally recognized hyperkinetic impulse disorder as a mental disorder in the second edition of its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-II).

By then the psychostimulant Ritalin (methylphenidate), approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1955, was a popular treatment for ADHD, which was becoming more understood and increasingly diagnosed.

In 1980, the APA changed the name of hyperkinetic impulse disorder to attention deficit disorder (ADD) in DSM-III.

It included the subtypes:

  • ADD with hyperactivity
  • ADD without hyperactivity
  • ADD residual type

Seven years later, in a revised edition of DSM-III, the APA changed the name again to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), with no subtypes.

In 2000, DSM-IV established three types of ADHD:

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but research shows that the brains of people with this disorder may be structured differently than the brains of those who don’t have it.

In a 2017 study of 72 young adults, those with ADHD had less gray matter concentration than the participants who didn’t have ADHD. Gray matter controls muscular and sensory activities.

Widespread areas of the brains of the participants with ADHD were also smaller in shape. This included the frontal lobe, which is involved in actions like impulse control and concentration.

People who have ADHD may also have low levels of dopamine due to a higher level of dopamine transporters. Dopamine is a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, that affects your brain’s reward centers and helps to regulate your emotions.

ADHD was first included in a revised edition of the APA’s DSM-III in 1987. The disorder had previously been referred to as ADD (attention deficit disorder), and before 1980, it was known as hyperkinetic impulse disorder.

In 1997, the first national survey asking parents about ADHD was completed. Since then, there has been an increase in parent-reported ADHD diagnoses.

It’s unknown whether the increase is due to more children having ADHD or more children being diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While having ADHD can be challenging, it also has traits that some people may consider benefits, such as:

  • Spontaneity. Some people with ADHD may be impulsive, which may be transformed into being spontaneous. For example, you may be more willing to try new things.
  • Curiosity. Being naturally inquisitive and open to new experiences may help you discover meaning in life.
  • Hyperfocus. Sometimes having ADHD means you can become hyperfocused on something like a work project that you’re passionate about which allows you to finish it without breaking your concentration.
  • Hyperactivity. If you have a high amount of energy, you may find success by burning it off in sports or by performing work or school activities.
  • Innovation. Having ADHD may give you a different life perspective, which may help you to become more creative and able to come up with outside-of-the-box ideas.