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ADHD receives new scrutiny for its benefits, particularly for farmers

In 2008, anthropologist Dr. Dan Eisenberg, Ph.D., discovered that successful herders of cattle and goats in Kenya were two times more likely than less successful herders to exhibit ADHD. Since then researchers have found similar results among farmers elsewhere.

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Many farmers and ranchers may have a genetic disposition to ADHD, which can be a helpful trait for the occupation.
Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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Scientific evidence indicating benefits from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is mounting, contradictory to the long-held assumptions that ADHD limited the well-being and achievements of persons with the diagnosis.

ADHD is a commonly diagnosed neurological — as well as a behavioral and genetic — condition which affects 10% to 20% of children, many adults, and probably more kids and adults who are undiagnosed. Star athletes, such as Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, and entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson, say their ADHD helped propel them to their achievements.

A preponderance of recent research findings indicates that ADHD is highly genetically inclined, although expressed manifestations of the ADHD inclinations vary considerably. The propensity for ADHD contributed to survival of our ancient ancestors.

Advantageous traits of ADHD include, but are not limited, to less need for sleep than usual for the average person, capacity to focus efforts constructively to achieve a highly desirable outcome, willingness to take risks that can lead to success, quick recovery from failures as well as from bouts of anger, a usually buoyant demeanor, a sense of humor, capacity to solve problems atypically, and creativity in the arts and most everything.

Of course there are downsides, such as reduced temper control, jeopardy to safety and successful outcomes when taking risks, negative social reactions to disruptive behaviors, and running the risks of having their judgments dismissed because of ADHD.

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In 2008, anthropologist Dr. Dan Eisenberg, Ph.D., discovered that successful herders of cattle and goats in Kenya were two times more likely than less successful herders to exhibit ADHD. Since then researchers have found similar results among farmers elsewhere, thereby adding confirmation to the hypothesis that successful agricultural producers of livestock and crops have a propensity to possess a mutated gene, labeled DRD4, which predisposes them to ADHD.

The biological explanation is that persons with the DRD4 variant seek stimulation because it boosts the brain’s dopamine output, which increases satisfaction. Psychological explanations were that ADHD leads to impulsive and disruptive behaviors that disturb the people around them, but newer analyses suggest that ADHD behaviors can contribute to many positive outcomes when better understood.

A 2020 meta-analysis of the effects of genomic inheritance of ADHD by Paula Estellar-Cucala and associates in Scientific Reports indicates that ADHD probably had more benefits for hunter-gatherers than for farmers who undertook agriculture some 15,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers needed to be on constant lookout for food, fuel, and protection from the elements and predators, but the necessity for ADHD traits declined as agriculture made these essentials for life more readily available.

Nevertheless, the inherited ADHD traits didn’t disappear. They remain in varying degrees in today’s generations of people everywhere, and especially in current successful farmers who provide the same essentials for life as did their much earlier predecessors.

Eisenberg’s findings gave rise to speculation that many farming people in the Americas carry the ADHD gene in their makeup because their ancestors from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere took risks to leave their homelands where they had little chance to own farmland to find opportunities in the Western Hemisphere where they could pursue agriculture. Native Americans on both continents who hunted and farmed successfully in the past still may carry the ADHD gene, although many First People in the Americas were wiped out by disease and by immigrants who possessed superior weaponry.

For immigrants from Africa to the Americas, the explanation is different, because most Africans were forced to leave their continent to work as slaves, particularly in agriculture. However, it’s likely that those who survived their harsh experiences aboard slave ships and — later—on plantations, were able to sustain themselves and to multiply because they carried ADHD inclinations that facilitated their existence.

A new documentary film available on television, The Disruptors, portrays how the diagnosis of ADHD is becoming accepted for its benefits, while recasting its negative attributes mostly positively. What uniformed parents and teachers consider disruptive behaviors, such as speaking out impulsively and not appearing to follow instructions, are reinterpreted as explorative behaviors.

Teachable moments are encouraged, such as allowing ADHD children to choose what to focus on instead of being forced to comply with instructions unless danger is at hand.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 outlined the best remedies to out-of-control ADHD behavior. First is to undertake behavior therapy, followed by combining ADHD medications with behavioral counseling, and last by resorting to medications alone. For adults who exhibit a propensity for ADHD, such as farmers, learning to manage behavior is especially important.

The frequency of injuries and deaths in agricultural occupations due to impulsive decisions can be reduced, while positive aspects of ADHD, such as trying new solutions to problems, can be implemented by proper management of behavior. Who knew? What was considered to be a problem previously is turning out to be a positive factor in farming successfully.

The author is a psychologist and farmer at Harlan, Iowa. He welcomes comments. His email address is mike@agbehavioralhealth.com .

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREMENTAL HEALTH
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