Although most of us log hundreds of thousands of hours of our lives in the car, driving is not a thoughtless activity: It requires physiological and mental acuity. And at some point, the changes we all experience with aging may signal the end of our life on the road. But many doctors emphasize that age is just a number. “For the most part, older drivers are safe drivers who get a bad rap,” says Nina M. Silverstein, PhD, a gerontologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who argues against a generalized approach to maximum age limits for licensing in favor of individualized restriction. Still, there are some cognitive and physical impairments associated with dementia, diabetes and other medical conditions to consider when evaluating Mom’s, Grandma’s or your own driving capability.
Vision deterioration, says Silverstein, can begin as early as age 40. Poor vision — especially limited peripheral vision — can impair drivers’ ability to see other vehicles or pedestrians in front, on the side or behind them. This can apply to both day and nighttime driving. Silverstein warns that some vision problems are related to underlying conditions, such as cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration, all of which can make driving dangerous if unacknowledged and untreated. In addition, many medications affect us differently as we age, especially in combination.
Cognitive changes that accompany aging and its associated medical conditions — like dementia — can make reacting and concentrating more difficult. “Driving is an over-learned activity,” says Silverstein — as routine as brushing your teeth. “If you’re starting to get lost in familiar places, forget where you’re going or have to think too hard about the sequencing involved in starting or parking the car, you may want to be screened for early signs of dementia.” Other ways in which changing cognitive abilities may affect your ability to operate a car include driving too fast or too slow and having trouble understanding road signs.
A general decline in physical dexterity can make even the most basic motoring skills, like turning the steering wheel and accelerating and breaking, a challenge. In addition, many medical conditions that affect older drivers — Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and arthritis to name some — can include side effects such as memory loss, slower reaction times, difficulty judging space and distance, imbalance and physical impairments such as painful joints and muscle tension. Many car makers are implementing high-tech vehicle modifications as ways to keep people driving longer: audible directionals, self-adjusting mirrors, non-emergency reassurance services like OnStar and adaptable vehicles that know to pull over in a medical emergency. Silverstein also suggests some low-tech changes drivers can make to their own cars, such as using a ribbon to pull a seatbelt across the body, customizing the driver’s seat for greater comfort and adding a mirror to minimize blind spots. She also encourages seniors to integrate public transportation into their lives even if they’re still capable of driving. “We all should plan for a time that we are no longer driving,” she says. “According to research, men outlive their safe driving years by six years and women by ten years.”
If you’re experiencing any new or troublesome symptoms while driving, it’s important to consult with your doctor. Still, many experts, Silverstein included, warn against giving up driving too soon, especially if a doctor has cleared you to drive. “More adults self-regulate by not driving at night or in bad weather, which is fine,” says Silverstein. “Though the more you self-regulate, the more you reduce your social space, which can lead to depression and isolation.” It’s important to find ways to continue to do the things you like to do and maintain a sense of independence. If driving has become unsafe, take advantage of public transportation and volunteer driving programs. What’s more, studies show that humans are capable of learning right up until death, and programs designed to improve your mental cognition can literally reverse the effects of aging and ultimately extend driving. The downloadable games at Drive Sharp have been proven to help cognitive skills. “Games like Drive Sharp have been shown to reduce age-related crashes by over 50 percent, and over a relatively short period of time,” says Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the American Automobile Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Such games can increase your useful field of vision by 200 percent. And the technology is only getting better: If we have these advances now, imagine what else we could have in just five years.”