What does attention deficit mean in ADHD?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine
We all have moments of deficit in our attention where we’re trying to study or when that speaker bores you, but usually you can put your nose back to the grindstone easily. People with attention deficit experience this and more in such a way that impedes their ability to function.  They consistently:
- Forget details
- Get frequently distracted
- Feel bored easily
- Have trouble listening
- Process things slowly
- Have trouble following directions
As you can imagine, it can be a struggle to maintain friendships and get things done at school or work.  If this describes you or your child, talk to your doctor. Many people with attention deficit find that ADHD medication, and other forms of therapy, help them succeed in school and at work and improve the relationships they have with friends and family.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) affects both children and adults. It can be very debilitating and interferes with activity of daily living. ADHD is classified into two predominant categories – inattention and hyperactivity. The attention deficit in ADHD refers to the inability to pay close attention to details and difficulty sustaining attention to a particular task. Thus, these individuals are easily distracted by unrelated stimuli, do not seem to listen when spoken to directly, do not follow through on instructions, have difficulty organizing tasks and are forgetful in daily activities
Douglas E. Severance, MD
Family Medicine
The term attention deficit refers to people who have a hard time paying attention to details or sticking with an activity for an extended amount of time. People with attention deficit may not appear to listen well, might be forgetful, and can be easily distracted. Other problems for people with attention deficit include having trouble following instructions and completing tasks. 

When people have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), they usually fall into one of three groups. Some people with ADHD have problems with hyperactive and impulsive behavior. These people are the primarily hyperactive-impulsive type. Others with ADHD have a great deal of trouble paying attention and are considered the primarily inattentive type. Some people struggle with all of the ADHD symptoms: hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. They are in the category of combined type.

I've always been amazed that, though the terms "ADD" and "ADHD" are bandied about like the latest fad in some circles only a few people ask a fundamental question: "What is attention?" If you are awake you are paying attention to lots of things, all the time. So how can someone have a deficit of attention?

Upon closer examination, we may realize that an attention deficit is really a case of not paying attention to what you are supposed to be paying attention to.

Many people with the diagnosis of ADHD are not paying attention to school, and their parents for kids or to their work or spouse if they are an adult.

If you pay attention to your attention, you will notice something very obvious: We pay attention to what we are interested in.

If you want to increase a person's attention, find out what she is interested in and use that as rocket fuel to propel an increase in attention. It's a simple formula that points toward a treatment for ADHD.

Attention deficit means inability to pay attention. In people with this disorder, inattention appears when they are involved in a task that requires vigilance, rapid reaction time, visual and perceptual search, and systematic and sustained learning. This disorder impedes development of academic skills, thinking and reasoning strategies, motivation for school, and adjustment to social demands. People with this disorder tend to be hands- on learners and have difficulty in passive learning situations that require continuous performance and task completion. Diagnosis of attention deficit requires at least 6 of the 9 possible symptoms. DSM-IV criteria require that symptoms criteria must be present in at least at two settings (home and school) and present before age 7.

Specific symptoms of inattention are

  • Dose not pay attention to detail
  • Has difficulty sustaining attention at school
  • Dose not seem to listen when spoken to
  • Does not follow through on instructions or finish task
  • Has difficulty organizing task
  • Avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that requires sustained mental effort
  • Often losses things
  • Is easily distracted
  • Is forgetful

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.