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Brain Health and Driving

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

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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:

  • 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.


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.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, symptoms of drowsiness while driving may include:

  • Impaired reaction time and judgment.
  • Decreased performance, vigilance and motivation to continue to your destination.
  • Trouble focusing and keeping your eyes open or your head up.
  • Daydreaming and wandering thoughts.
  • Yawning or rubbing your eyes repeatedly.
  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating, driving below the speed limit and missing signs or exits.
  • Feeling restless, irritable or aggressive.

Attention and Alertness

Here are some techniques to consider to combat drowsiness or fatigue:

  • Pull over in a safe area and stop; a 30-minute nap may help.
  • Stop and get a caffeinated beverage.
  • Stop driving if drowsiness persists.
  • Plan on stopping at least every two hours or 100 miles.

Inattentional Blindness

Inattentional blindness occurs when you do not see something that is in plain sight. You “looked but did not see.”
Do not engage in other activities while driving; your full mental attention should be directed to the driving task.

Reaction Time

As noted earlier, as we age, reaction time slows, and we need more time to process information. The driving strategies below will help compensate for a slower reaction time:

  • Try to steer clear of busy highways and congested traffic.
  • Increase your following distance.
  • Minimize left turns.
  • Eliminate distractions inside the vehicle.
  • Review your medications.
  • Make sure you are alert.

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