Hit the Brakes! Study Focuses on Safety of Drivers Who Have Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  •             My mother wanted to keep control of her car keys, even though there were signs that her memory was fading. Yet starting in 2002, the signs that something was wrong were there. First, Mom forgot how to use the automatic car door opener on her keychain. Then she forgot how to use the garage door opener. I never drove with her, but my brother did at one point, and he said her driving was bad. (This was before we had an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.)

    More recently, I have heard of several people who have Alzheimer’s who are getting behind the driving wheel and becoming lost, including leaving the city where they live. These people don’t have the ability to understand where they are and no longer have the mental skills or memory needed to find their way home.

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                Because of these types of issues, a new research study from the University of Iowa, published in the Feb 10 issue of Neurology, is of great interest to me and others who worry about a loved one with Alzheimer’s driving. The researchers studied 40 drivers who were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s as well as 115 elderly drivers who were not diagnosed with dementia. The study participants participated in a 35-mile drive that took them both into and out of a city; videos of these road tests were reviewed by a driving expert who noted safety issues. The participants also took part in lab tests measuring thinking, movement and visual skills.

                Researchers found that drivers who had Alzheimer’s committed an average of 42 safety mistakes; these mistakes were 27 percent more than the average number of errors (33) committed by participants who did not have dementia. Researchers also found that the Alzheimer’s participants who performed well on cognitive tests were less likely to make on-road safety mistakes. The most frequent mistakes made by all participants involved lane violations.

                This information is important not only for those with Alzheimer’s and caregivers, but also potentially for car companies.  I would suggest that car companies develop some sort of technology that utilizes a fingerprint scan to allow a driver to start the car. By having this type of technology, the car’s “system” could be altered so that it won’t turn on when a person with Alzheimer’s who shouldn’t be driving gets behind the wheel. This type of innovation would help solve many problems, including the fear that a loved one with progressed dementia will be able to drive off and get lost – or hurt someone by inadvertently having an accident.


Published On: February 13, 2009