AARP Eye Center
Independence is important, and having to surrender some of it — especially the freedom to drive — can be an emotional blow, no matter our age.
But a stroke can affect driving ability by killing or damaging brain cells and possibly causing long-term brain damage, which in turn can affect whether drivers have the coordination to get back behind the wheel after a stroke.
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Strokes are the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but only about 10 to 20 percent of strokes are fatal. While strokes do happen to younger people, the odds increase with age. Nearly three-fourths of strokes occur in people older than 65.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says most stroke survivors can return to independent, safe driving.
Drivers don’t automatically lose their license after a stroke. Regulations on that “vary from state to state,” says Lee H. Schwamm, M.D., director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Stroke Center, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a spokesperson for the American Stroke Association.
“Generally, physician-patient confidentiality rules discourage” reporting your stroke to driver’s license officials, he says. An exception would be “when it endangers public health,” such as if a school bus driver insists on returning to work and his or her doctor believes the driver isn’t ready yet.
A doctor can administer relatively simple tests to measure the stroke victim’s vision and responses, Schwamm says, “to tell you you’re not OK to drive if you don’t have vision off to the left or right side, or don’t have the coordination.” But the tests don’t tell you if you are ready to drive, he cautions.
Doug Carroll, who lives in Northern Virginia, had that in mind after a stroke on Christmas Day 2014 — a month after his 60th birthday. “It was a mild stroke, but that’s deceptive. It was not without consequences,” Carroll says.