What causes ADHD?

That’s one of the most popular questions people have about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The popular answer to that question used to be “genetics.” Like many other adults with ADHD, I can pinpoint which side of the family my ADHD comes from, and which family members clearly have ADHD themselves. (My mother loves to say, “You got it from your father,” not realizing that she is the epitome of adult ADHD.)

There’s a sense of comfort that comes from being able to look at the members of your family and know that you got the ADHD genes in the way you got your hair and eye color. It’s nice to think, as Thom Hartmann, author of The Edison Gene: ADHD and the Gift of the Hunter Child has pointed out, that ADHD has stuck around in the gene pool all these thousands upon thousands of years for a reason. That the ADHD brain, while different from 95% of the other brains, holds some sort of special place in the world, perhaps fueling the inventors and visionaries of the past, the present, and the future.

But recent studies are showing another kind of ADHD, an ADHD that’s caused by environmental factors. Just last week, a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine concluded that gestational diabetes and low socioeconomic status, “especially in combination, heighten the risk for childhood ADHD. Long-term prevention efforts should be directed at mothers with GDM to avoid suboptimal neurobehavioral development and mitigate the risk for ADHD among their offspring.”

Additional studies have also suggested that secondhand smoke may cause ADHD and that fast-paced television shows can decrease a child’s attention span. Clearly, this is not Thom Hartmann’s ADHD.

Mark Bertin, MD, author of The Family ADHD Solution: A Scientific Approach to Maximizing Your Child’s Attention and Minimizing Parental Stress, explains:

There’s a growing body of research around the concept of ‘epigenetics.’ Epigenetics refers to the fact that, at least in some instances, our environment influences the genes our bodies choose to express—both in-utero and after birth. In light of that, it isn’t surprising that maternal diabetes would increase the likelihood of ADHD.

So what are we talking about here, true ADHD, or ADHD-like symptoms? The medical community doesn’t differentiate. The symptoms make the diagnosis, not the genetics. And while it’s nice to think that our ADHD has been passed down for generations because it serves a useful purpose, ADHD that is a result of environmental factors seems somewhat less romantic.

There is still much to be discovered and explained about ADHD. And no matter what the studies show, the important thing to remember is that whether or not ADHD can be prevented, it can be treated—and managed.

I’d love to know what you think about these recent findings. Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Jennifer Koretsky About Jennifer Koretsky

Jennifer Koretsky, SCAC is the Managing Partner of the ADD Management Group, LLC and Chief Executive Officer of ADHDmanagement.com. She is a Senior Certified ADHD Coach, and the author of Odd One Out: The Maverick's Guide to Adult ADD.


  1. Jennifer –

    This is a great article. I enjoyed reading it a lot. This was not your average “back against the wall,” not really knowing what to say type article when it comes to the timeless, often debated question, What Causes ADHD?

    Please take this as a sincere compliment. It was nice to learn something new that made sense and wasn’t just medical mumbo jumbo.

    Love the new site. Keep up the great work.


  2. Jennifer Koretsky Jennifer Koretsky says:

    Thanks, Rory! I’m glad you liked it!

  3. Ditto! Thanks Rory.
    And Jennifer, thanks for all the relief that you’re helping to provide.

  4. Jennifer Koretsky Jennifer Koretsky says:

    Thank you, Lynn! I’m glad you’re finding the resources helpful! :-)

  5. Hello Jennifer,
    Actually, on an evolutionary level, the theory of ‘epigenetics’ makes naturalistic sense as possible cause of ADHD minds.
    If we think in terms of nature doing whatever it takes to ensure the survival of the species then it is in situations stressful to life that nature would provide more differently creative type minds, increasing the odds that at least some of those minds come up with a way to survive, maybe ultimately alter, the stressful situation.
    Unfortunately, it is often the strictures of modern culture (usually in the form of school) that denies the differently creative mind the leeway to play its naturally intended role.
    Jennifer this is, hands down, the best web-site on ADHD I’ve seen yet. Bravo. I’ll be back often. Thanks!

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