Though there have been numerous studies of the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for ADHD symptoms in children, adolescents, and adults, few have examined efficacy among adults over 50. A new study begins to fill that void.
Psychiatric researchers from the New York University School of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Pfizer randomly assigned 88 adults diagnosed with elevated levels of ADHD to one of two groups. The first group received 12 weeks of CBT targeting executive dysfunction – a deficiency in the ability to properly analyze, plan, organize, schedule, and complete tasks. The second group was assigned to a support group, intended to serve as a control for any effects arising from participating in a group therapy. Each group was split into subgroups of six to eight participants. One of the CBT subgroups was run concurrently with one of the support-only subgroups and matched on the percent receiving ADHD medications.
Outcomes were obtained for different ADHD demographics, 26 adults aged 50 or older (12 in CBT and 14 in support) and compared with 55 younger adults (29 in CBT and 26 in support). The mean age of the younger group was 35 and of the older group 56. Roughly half of the older group, and 3/5ths of the younger group, was on medication. Independent (“blinded”) clinicians rated symptoms of ADHD before and after treatment.
In the blind structured interview, both inattentive scores and executive function scores improved significantly and almost identically for both older and younger adults following CBT. When compared with the controls (support groups), however, there was a marked divergence. In younger adults, CBT groups significantly outperformed support groups, with mean relative score improvements of 3.7 for inattentive symptoms and 2.9 for executive functioning. In older adults, however, the relative score improvements were only 1.1 and 0.9, and were not statistically significant.
Given the nonsignificant improvements over placebo, the authors’ conclusion that “The results provide preliminary evidence that CBT is an effective intervention for older adults with ADHD” is premature. As they note, a similar large placebo effect was seen in adults over 50 in a meta-analysis of CBT for depression, rendering the outcomes nonsignificant. Perhaps structured human contact is the key ingredient in this age group. It may also be, as suggested by the positive relative gains on six of seven measures, that CBT has a small net benefit over placebo, which cannot be validated with such a small sample size. Awaiting results from studies with larger sample sizes, it is for now impossible to reach any definitive conclusions about the efficacy of CBT for treating adults over 50.
Note: Andrew Reding is co-author on this post.
Mary V. Solanto, Craig B. Surman, Jose Ma. J. Alvir, “The efficacy of cognitive–behavioral therapy for older adults with ADHD: a randomized controlled trial,” ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders (2018)