Report finds giving up keys means more health issues for older drivers 

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Giving up the freedom of the road comes at a cost for elderly drivers, according to a recent study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and Columbia University.

The report sparked a conversation among drivers and industry specialists about how to preserve mobility and keep older adults safe. 

Driving and depression

As baby boomers age, more than 39 million people have joined the 65-and-older age group, and nearly 81 percent of them continue to drive, according to the AAA report. When older drivers hand over keys due to physical or mental limitations, their likelihood of depression doubles and they are five times more likely to enter long-term care facilities.

The number of drivers age 70 and older involved in fatal crashes peaked in 1997 and has been declining since then, said Jessica Cicchino, lead researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In general, seniors struggle with unprotected left turns, merging, changing lanes and night driving, Cicchino said.

“Older drivers actually, when they’re involved in crashes, tend most often to either kill themselves or kill their passengers,” she said. “Older people tend to be more fragile.”

While the new research shows a very strong statistical correlation between age, safety and overall health, Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said it doesn’t positively show a causal relationship.

“Some of that is because people are healthier today, and some of it is related to other factors — better cars, better roads. Driving is a privilege, but mobility is a right,” Kissinger said. “The fortunate news is that seniors tend to be very responsible drivers. … They often recognize the limitations that come with aging, and in most cases, those limitations are trumped by experience.”  

Driving and dementia

“When you boil it down, there are two issues that an older adult faces that potentially could impede their ability to drive,” said Lance Robertson, director of the Aging Services Division at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS). “One is the cognitive side of all of this just because of dementia. The second and probably more prominent one remains those physical conditions: response time and visual acuity.”

There are 61,000 diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease in Oklahoma and 5.3 million cases nationwide, according to Germaine Odenheimer, neurologist and geriatrician at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.

Additionally, Cicchino said that in 2013, in fatal crashes that involved a driver 70 and older, 61 percent of deaths were the older driver and 15 percent were the passenger in the elderly driver’s car.

Aging concerns

The AAA study also found that older adults who permanently give up driving experience diminished productivity, low participation in daily life activities outside the home, a 51 percent reduction in the size of social networks over a 13-year period and accelerated decline in cognitive ability over a 10-year period.

“When it comes to these cognitive diseases, we are all potential victims if we don’t take care of ourselves,” Robertson said. “To the extent we can, we’ve got to exercise our brains and keep our bodies in better shape.”

For people worried about the ability of older friends and family to safely operate a vehicle, DHS’s Aging Services Division recommends riding along with them to assess their driving and better understand their abilities and situation before talking to them about driving limitations or cessation, Robertson said.

“I would certainly encourage family, while to move quickly, to be very patient and to understand that first and foremost, what’s at stake is that independence and dignity of the older adult,” he said.

He recommends reading through suggested steps and talking points at elderweb.com to prepare an action plan, as well as including the elderly driver in the conversation from the beginning.

Print Headline: Road wary, The road offers more than just adventure and a route to a destination; for some, it can mean good health.

 

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