Most People with Cognitive Impairment Are Still Driving, According to New Study

As people get further into late adulthood, they may decide it’s safest not to drive anymore. This can be due to vision issues, physical fitness, or slower reflexes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 7,489 Americans 65 and older were killed in car crashes in 2021, which accounts for 17% of all traffic fatalities. A new study, though, finds that most older adults with a certain health condition are still on the roads.

A study of more than 600 senior Texans with likely cognitive impairment showed that 61.4% were still driving, with just over 35% of their caregivers voicing concerns about that. The Michigan Medicine study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, did find that many of these seniors limited their driving and avoided driving at night or in the rain. The worse their cognitive impairment, the less apt they were to be driving, too.

Elderly woman driving in sunglasses

The team says findings like this are a reminder to chat with a doctor about how safe it is for you or your loved one to be driving.

Dr. Lewis B. Morgenstern, senior author and professor at the University of Michigan’s Medical School and School of Public Health, says, “It is likely appropriate that some with mild cognitive impairment are still driving, but for some it may not be. Patients and caregivers should discuss these issues with their health care providers and consider on the road driving evaluations to ensure safety.”

Though such conversations are difficult, and relinquishing driving privileges can often feel like a loss of independence, while the caregiver will then take on more duties, safety does need to be considered. Most people in the early stages of dementia may be able to drive safely, but as the disease progresses, it can change their abilities.

Elderly couple driving together

That’s why the researchers suggest having conversations about driving while the patient is still able to actively participate. Dr. Morgenstern says this can involve an Advance Driving Directive, which serves as an agreement between a patient and their loved one about when to stop driving.

The National Institute on Aging says there are a few things you can look out for that indicate your loved one with dementia should no longer be behind the wheel. Those include new dents on the car, multiple near misses or crashes, taking too long to do a simple errand without an explanation, confusing the brake and gas pedals, multiple traffic tickets or warnings, speeding or driving too slowly, and making poor decisions in traffic.

There are transportation options once you stop driving that can help, though. Communities often offer free or low-cost buses and carpools for seniors. Other local organizations may offer driving services for older adults. Family and friends may be helpful, too.

View behind man driving a car
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