Could Your Driving Habits Provide Clues Regarding Your Risk of Alzheimer’s?

When older individuals display biomarkers of Alzheimer’s, yet symptoms have not yet manifested, would this influence their ability to drive?

This is the question that researchers have asked themselves at Washington University Medical Center. Currently conducting an ongoing study, they aim to determine how driving habits change with age in relation to early indicators of Alzheimer’s.

Could driving habits begin to tell us clues that we were once oblivious to?

Studying the Driving Habits of Older Adults

Before installing chips into each subject’s vehicle, researchers tested 50 participants for early signs of Alzheimer’s. These results were not shared with the participants. Instead, the researchers used these outcomes to compare individuals whose brains displayed early warning signs, against those who had normal results.

In this particular case study, the leading author stated, “If you have a group of people who are 65 years and older, approximately 30 percent will display abnormal Alzheimer’s biomarkers.”

Based on these biomarkers, the outward symptoms of Alzheimer’s may not manifest for another 10 to 20 years. The researchers are interested in finding out if these abnormal biomarkers will impact how people drive. It is their hope to get up to 300 participants, studying their driving habits for at least two years.

The technology being used is the same chips that are installed when parents want to better track their teenagers. It is also used by companies who have numerous vehicles on the road, monitoring both fuel efficiency and driving habits.

Although the researchers are looking at the routes taken as well as speed, they can also detect when a vehicle veers into another lane. Unfortunately, deviating out of lanes can be a sign that one’s behavior is changing.This collected data helps paint a clearer picture over time.

So, what behaviors are they looking for in regards to Alzheimer’s?

  • Key changes in behavior, including take shorter trips.
  • Avoiding driving at night or in bad weather.

Of course, you could argue that these changes are due to aging. These individuals may be more cautious as they grow older, resulting in altered driving habits. As one’s hearing and vision begin to worsen, they may alter when and how they drive. There are also bad drivers to begin with.

This is why both medical tests and driving habits are observed and compared in tandem. This will help researchers differentiate between certain groups. The ultimate goal is to keep aging adults on the road safely and for a longer period of time. If someone is able to safely drive until they’re 80+ this could significantly influence their overall well-being.

How Else May Dementia and Alzheimer’s Affect Driving?

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in every three individuals with dementia continues to drive. While focusing on a practical and legal standpoint, you need to ask yourself — can the individual still drive safely?

Although driving seems rather automatic to experienced drivers, it requires a complex combination of problem solving skills, processing skills, decision-making skills, visuospatial skills, and high levels of focus. These are the areas that affect an individual with dementia, before memory loss impacts their driving.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with dementia, you will need to share this with the DVLA/DMV. Based on requested medical reports, they will make a decision with three possibilities:

  1. The individual may be able to renew their license for a year.
  2. Their license may be immediately cancelled.
  3. In rare cases, they will request more information or will ask the individual to take an on-road driving test.

Prior to their decision, you should remove yourself from the road if you:

  • No longer feel confident on the road.
  • Get lost even when in familiar places.
  • Can no longer judge speed or distance.
  • Becoming confused while driving — for example, not understanding roadworks.
  • Notice passengers expressing concerns about your driving.

Alzheimer’s and Cognitive Driving Assessment Using On-Road Simulator

Driving is a sensitive topic, especially for caregivers. It can be tough to take the keys away from your father — someone who was always so independent and proud.

Each case is unique, but regardless of your loved one’s perceived abilities, safety needs to be your number one priority. In a particular Toronto-based study, those with Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment were more likely to fail the driving test in comparison to healthy controls.

The researchers concluded that the driving ability of Alzheimer’s and MCI patients is related to the degree of cognitive decline. They recommended that future studies focus on driving performance and neural networks — which is currently being explored by the researchers at Washington University Medical Center.

We will continue to follow and report the latest in research, helping you make more informed decisions in your day-to-day life. Do comment below to share your stories, if you or a love one have had experiences dealing with Alzheimer’s and driving.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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