FRIDAY, May 20 (HealthDay News) -- Even healthy seniors with
safe driving records and no history of dementia tend to make more
potentially dangerous errors, such as forgetting to check a blind
spot, according to a new study.
This suggests that driving performance declines with normal
aging and more mistakes crop up, putting the elderly at risk of
automobile crashes, said the Australian researchers, who suggested
additional training in related cognitive skills for older
That suggestion, however, will likely be controversial.
"It's really hard to re-train the brain," said Renee Pekmezaris, vice president for community and health services in the Research Department of Population Health at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in New York.
Other studies show that cognitive re-training does not reduce
older people's driving crashes, said Pekmezaris. "I'm not as
hopeful as the study authors about that," she said. "But there are
other things we can do."
The study appeared online May 16 in
Neuropsychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.
In the study, researchers examined the driving habits of 266
healthy drivers ranging in age from 70 to 88 who lived
independently and drove at least once a week. Besides completing
questionnaires about their health and driving history, the elders
took tests on various driving skills such as discrimination,
reaction time and the ability to stay focused amid distractions or
adapt to changing conditions.
During the 12-mile road test, a professional instructor with
access to a brake rode in the car. An occupational therapist sat in
the back seat and scored the drivers for skills such as using
signals and mirrors, checking the "blind spot" and problems that
included veering, tailgating, inappropriate braking and
Overall, 17 percent of the drivers made serious mistakes that
required the instructor to grab the steering wheel or apply the
The rate of critical mistakes among drivers aged 85 to 89 (who
had an average of almost four critical mistakes) was also four
times higher than among those 70 to 74 years old (who had an
average of less than one).
The most common error was a failure to check the "blind spot"
for other vehicles. Drivers reporting a previous crash on the
questionnaire made more errors connected to observation, and scored
lower on appropriate braking and acceleration, the study found.
Men and women performed equally well on the tests.
"The results fit well with about 30 years of previous research," said Harvey L. Sterns, a research professor of gerontology at Northeastern Ohio Medical University. Driving ability, in general, declines with age, he said.
But Sterns cautioned that many elderly have no problems handling
a car. Some drivers in the oldest age group studied made no errors,
"There are greater differences within age groups than between age groups," said Sterns, also a professor of psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio. "It's hard to know whether [the study is] showing dramatic changes relative to an earlier time."
In the United States, 33 million drivers aged 65 and older were
on the roads in 2009, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. On average, 500 elderly adults are injured
every day in car accidents, the agency reported.
As the population ages, the issue will increase in significance,
said Sterns. Pinpointing cognitive functions that are linked to
driving skills is "an important first step," he said, noting some
of these functions could be improved with training.
The authors said their findings are useful for those designing
roads and signs, although they acknowledge their study has
limitations. One is that drivers' vision wasn't evaluated.
Pekmezaris said aging drivers might do well to modify their
driving habits and take advantage of technological advances.
Older drivers may need to restrict their driving to daylight
hours, and make use of anti-glare equipment and onboard
anti-collision devices, she said.
"What we really need is to get physicians involved in this," said Pekmezaris. Earlier research found that 89 percent of elderly drivers reported they would stop driving if their doctors recommended it, she said.
To learn more about elderly drivers, visit the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
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