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Routine Testing Can Help Seniors Decide When to Quit Driving

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When most of today’s baby boomers were teens, the last thing on our minds was when to quit driving. We couldn’t wait to start getting behind the wheel! The privilege of having our driver’s license meant freedom, and for most of us that license was a first badge of adulthood.

That was true for many of us decades ago, and it’s still true today: driving equals independence. Sadly, that means the decision about when to quit driving as we age is not merely practical, but deeply emotional. Still, for our own safety and that of others – not to mention peace of mind for those we love – it’s better for us to make the inevitable choice to quit driving than to have it forced on us.

Cognitive Decline is a Warning Sign for Senior Drivers

With that in mind, we’re bringing to your attention this recent article from HealthDay in which reporter Dennis Thompson describes how routine cognitive tests can provide a helpful warning to seniors and their families that the time to quit driving is near. These tests can reveal mild cognitive decline that impedes driver safety even for drivers who might otherwise be physically qualified to stay behind the wheel. This is important news for senior drivers and those they love.

(For more on this topic, check out this Blog article from early 2024 describing how common medications can impair safe driving skills for senior motorists.)

When to Quit Driving is a Tough, Emotional Choice

 According to Thompson—and a new study published in Neurology Journals in May 2024—the decision to stop driving is often based on subtle changes to a senior’s ability to remember, think, and reason.

Thompson writes, “Impaired cognitive function foreshadows the decision of many seniors to give up driving, even more so than age or physical changes related to Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found. And routine brain testing – in particular, screening meant to detect the earliest and most subtle decline – could help older adults make safe driving decisions while still preserving their independence, the study concluded.”

Many Older Drivers Know Their Brain is Changing

Ganesh Babulal, researcher and associate professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, notes that cognitive changes are often not a surprise to seniors, and catching these changes early can be key to a better transition out of driving.

In a university news release, he says, “Many older drivers are aware of changes occurring as they age, including subjective cognitive decline. Doctors should discuss such changes with their older patients. If risk is identified early, there is more time to support the remaining capacity and skills, extending the time they can drive safely, and to plan for a transition to alternative transportation options to maintain their independence when the time comes to stop driving.”

6-Year Research Study Tracked Older Motorists

Thompson explains that the study tracked 283 people with an average age of 72. Each participant drove at least once a week and, at the start of the study, had no cognitive impairments. For an average of almost six years, the study participants underwent annual brain testing; they also received brain scans and provided cerebrospinal fluid every two to three years, to test for early signs of Alzheimer’s.

From the start of the study, around a third of the participants met the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease—though they didn’t show any symptoms—based on abnormal amyloid and tau proteins found in their brains and spinal fluid. Researchers reported that during the course of the study, 24 participants stopped driving, 15 died, and 46 developed some form of cognitive impairment.

Predicting Who Would Quit Driving: 3 Factors

Thompson writes, “Three factors predicted who would stop driving during the study, researchers found – symptoms of cognitive impairment, worsening screening scores for Alzheimer’s, and being a woman. Women were four times more likely to stop driving than men during the course of the study, results show.”

Babulal adds, “We know from past studies that there isn’t a difference in driving ability between men and women. What we have shown in prior work is that women are often more aware of their abilities, are more willing to admit that they are no longer able to safely drive, and plan more in advance to transition out of driving compared to their male counterparts.”

Men Need to be Proactive About When to Quit Driving

Of this gender-based statistic, Babulal says that men should be encouraged to be realistic about their capabilities as they age, noting, “It is highly recommended that older male drivers talk with their providers about driving and consider stopping driving earlier.”

Babulal has further comments for health care providers, as he believes that doctors should also consider routinely talking with their older patients about driving. He sees this as an opportunity to promote healthy aging, adding, “There are things we can do to help people adapt to age-related changes.”

Community Resources Can Help Seniors and Families

Thompson concludes his article with Babulal’s thoughts on further support for older drivers.

“Driver rehabilitation programs, often led by occupational therapists, can provide specialized training and strategies for older drivers to adjust to physical and cognitive changes to maintain driving capacity,” Babulal says. “Community support programs provide a forum for older adults to share experiences and learn from each other about safe driving practices and alternative transportation options.”

He adds, “Ultimately, most people will need to stop driving, but by starting the conversation early, we can better support older adults’ independence and quality of life.”

The National Institute on Aging has more about safe driving for seniors.  AARP also offers a popular online Safe Driver Course for older motorists.

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(originally reported at

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