Mental Exercise Can Keep Older Adults Driving

A concern of both older and younger people is when to stop driving; older adults fear the loss of independence that comes with relinquishing a driver’s license, but their children and others fear the increased risk of accidents from slowdowns in mental processing and reaction time that accompany aging.

Researcher Jerri Edwards, an associate professor in the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, reported that the speed at which the brain can process and act on information (if no physical limitations exist) may reveal potential declines in driving ability.  Her research also found that brain training exercises designed for improving memory can help older adults keep their ability to drive.

Nearly 3,000 older adults (average age of 73) were studied for five years. After training, they were analyzed for driving habits and their reactions to driving conditions and maneuvers. The results showed that the more training participants received, the more at-risk older adults drove in a given week. This study is the first of its kind to show that “speed of processing training” can improve a range of driving skills over a five-year period.

Lead author Lesley A. Ross, an assistant professor at Penn State University, stated that divided attention and data processing are the strongest predictors of driving ability.  Participants in this study engaged in visual and audio exercises intended to boost the brain’s processing speed, quickness, and ability to maintain divided attention. They had to process increasing amounts of, and more complex, information as the program progressed. According to the researchers, the exercises are superior to crossword puzzles or video games. Edwards said that older drivers’ on-road performance was predicted using useful field of view (UFOV) tests, that proved to be indicators of crash involvement. They knew performance on the test could be improved with more training, but wanted to know whether actual driving ability could also be improved with additional training.

This study has recently been published in the Gerontological Society of America’s Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences; however, the researchers hope to study the participants for an additional five years.