Although many people with mild dementia (such as in early Alzheimer’s Disease) may initially be able to drive safely, their driving skills predictably decline over 1 – 2 years to a level that often leaves them unsafe to drive. The finding is the result of new research published in a recent edition of the journal Neurology — the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Scientists conducting this most recent study recorded changes in the driving ability of 84 older adults for a period of 3 years or more. Forty of the participants had been diagnosed with very mild dementia or mild Alzheimer’s disease, and 44 other individuals of a similar age were found to be free of cognitive impairment. This second group served as the control group.
The dementia-afflicted participants were evaluated clinically and had a driving test with a professional driving instructor every 6 months. The control group was tested at the time of enrollment and after 18 months. Additionally, the researchers collected driving and traffic violation information on all participants over the course of the study.
Initially, 41% of the participants with early Alzheimer’s disease were judged to be safe drivers, despite their dementia. Another 44% percent were marginal drivers, and 15% were deemed unsafe. By contrast, baseline driving tests demonstrated that 80% of the control group were safe drivers, 20% were marginal, and none unsafe.
By 18 months, many of the participants in both groups had stopped driving either due to hazardous driving or progression of dementia. At this point, only 5 of the 26 Alzheimer’s patients who were still capable of being evaluated were determined to be safe (19%), in comparison to 12 of the 21 control-group drivers (or 57%).
Authors of the study advise that these findings illustrate the great need for valid screening tests of cognition and driving skill, so that at-risk drivers who should have a specialized driving evaluation can be easily identified.
Warning signs that a senior driver may be unsafe may include driving too slowly, being confused or undecided at intersections, getting lost in familiar locations, failing to observe traffic signs, or being in an at-fault vehicular accident, among others.
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