AARP Driving Resource Center

Brain Health and Driving

From fatigue to memory loss to Alzheimer's, changes in the brain can alter the way you drive

As we become older, changes may occur in our brain. We can lose the ability to quickly assess and react appropriately to the demands of the driving task. Our brain health and overall mental well-being are important to the task of driving. Your ability to carry out the following processes should be gauged in assessing your driving competence:

brain weight lift, driver safety

Just as it is important to stay physically fit, it is also important to stay mentally fit. — iStockphoto

  • Attention and reaction time.
  • Concentration (paying attention to changes in your driving environment.
  • Ability to process information quickly and accurately.
  • Problem-solving skills (how to get help if you have a flat tire).
  • Memory (how to get to the doctor’s office).

See also: How does your hearing impact your driving?

Slowed reaction time, inattention and poor judgment are responsible for many crashes at all ages. Because we tend to slow down as we get older, these factors assume increasing importance with advancing years.

An older driver who is physically fit may not be able to drive safely on today’s crowded roadways because of mental decline. Just as it is important to stay physically fit, it is also important to stay mentally fit. The two go hand in hand. Research has shown that physical exercise can stimulate nerve growth in the brain.

Quick Tips for Selecting Activities to Stimulate Your Mind

  • Variety: Mastering a new skill gets easier with time and practice, so introduce variety. By changing up things on a regular basis, your mind will have to work harder to adapt to the exercise or activity.
  • Challenge: Never let a task become too routine. Try new activities with increasing levels of challenge or difficulty.
  • Novelty: Try new things, since very important parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) are exercised when you learn to master new cognitive challenges.

Dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is a progressive cognitive disease that affects an increasing number of older people. Like hearing loss, this condition may come on gradually. Many people do not realize they are experiencing early stages of dementia and will continue to drive. This may create an unsafe driving situation for themselves, loved ones and others. As dementia progresses, alternative transportation should be provided by a family member or caregiver.

Psychiatric/Emotional Conditions

Mental illness is common across all ages. The most common psychiatric diseases include mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder); anxiety disorders; schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, such as delusional disorder, delirium and dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease); and substance abuse disorders. People with psychiatric disease have a higher risk of crashes. Anyone with these conditions should seek his or her doctor’s advice.

Fatigue

When you are tired or fatigued, your reaction time slows down. Your judgment and vision may not be as sharp, your attention may wander, you may not be as alert, moodiness and aggressive behavior may increase and you may have problems with processing information and short-term memory.

Next page: What are symptoms of drowsiness while driving? »

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