It’s your health—not your age—that matters most in making the decision to stop driving. But growing evidence suggests a catch-22: While declining health can limit driving abilities, stopping driving may contribute to a worsening of physical and emotional health.
The effects of giving up the car keys
Like studies that have preceded it, an analysis in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in February 2016 suggested that driving cessation, whether voluntary or involuntary, among people 55 and older is associated with a negative impact on their mental and physical well-being.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York reported that, when compared with current drivers of similar ages, former drivers were twice as likely to have symptoms of depression.
The researchers also pointed to one of 16 studies they analyzed, which found that former drivers experienced a 51 percent reduction in the size of their social network of friends and relatives. This occurred more often in women than men.
“Not only is driving perceived as essential to personal freedom, independence, and control, but driving cessation also has an impact on physical health by potentially making it more difficult to carry out practical health tasks, like going to a medical appointment or picking up prescriptions,” says David R. Ragland, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the University of California, Berkeley, Safe Transportation Research and Education Center.
“The study shows that stopping driving can contribute to cognitive decline and depressive symptoms, and so finding ways to combat those effects is important," he adds.
A loss of spontaneity can also come with no longer driving, Ragland says. “Suddenly you have to plan your schedule around that of others. This takes extra planning and a new dependence on other people, which can be distressing.”
Staying healthy as an ex-driver
According to a 2002 study, men and women should expect to live an additional seven to 10 years, respectively, after they can no longer drive safely.
Giving up the car keys doesn’t mean you’re doomed to decline, however. Start thinking about retiring from driving while you’re still able to drive safely. Some preparation can help you remain physically and socially active. You might already be placing self-imposed restrictions on your driving, such as not driving after dark or avoiding highways.
Research shows that those who gradually give up driving fare better than those who are forced to stop without time to adapt. Here are a few steps you can take to ease into a non-driving lifestyle:
1. Consider how you’ll remain active outside your home. When people stop driving, they tend to substitute indoor activities for outdoor ones, which are generally less beneficial physically.
Look into local programs or community centers that provide transportation for older adults; public transit; car services such as taxis, Uber, and Lyft; or ride-sharing.
“To learn about the options in your community, speak with a mobility counselor at your local Area Agency on Aging,” Ragland says. You can call Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 to find the nearest agency.
2. Think about your location. If you live somewhere with limited transportation options, consider whether moving to a more centrally located area or a senior community with enhanced amenities, such as shopping within walking distance, would be a good fit.
3. Learn about public transit. “Ask friends familiar with local public transit for a crash course and whether they’ll accompany you on a trip or two,” Ragland says. “Knowing how to identify the right bus or train, pay, and request a stop may help alleviate concerns about using the system.”
Practice taking public transit on your own, so you’re comfortable when the day comes that you no longer have a choice.
4. Combat depressive symptoms. Driving plays an integral role in one’s identity and satisfaction, so recognizing this impact and addressing depressive symptoms is important. Find ways to maintain social connections: Invite a friend over for coffee, take a class, and join a book club.
5. Keep yourself active. Physical activity has been shown to improve cognitive function, reduce fall risk, prevent or improve chronic conditions, and help you maintain your independence.
6. Challenge your brain. Ex-drivers tend to have poorer cognitive abilities than current drivers. Besides regular physical activity and a healthy diet, help fight cognitive decline by staying engaged with friends and doing brain-stimulating activities, such as playing games and reading.
Melissa Caravella is a New Jersey-based health writer and content strategist. She has spent more than a dozen years writing and editing health content for consumers, with a focus on translating complex medical information into understandable and actionable knowledge.