Brain Training to Keep Seniors on the Road Longer

Q. When I was growing up, my father used to always be the one to drive our family everywhere. We would never fly, because it was “too expensive,” and I think it was also because dad loved driving. To this day, he and my mother drive their RV across the country, and if you need to find them, they are probably somewhere on the road.

My father’s hearing, peripheral vision, and motor skills aren’t what they used to be, and he’s been in some accidents in the past few years (luckily, nothing serious). I don’t think he should be driving as much anymore, but my mother is reluctant to take the car keys.  She gets nervous on highways and has become accustomed to him driving everywhere.

Is there any way to keep him in the driver’s seat just a little longer, or to help her become more confident.  I know if they were stuck in their house, my father would get depressed and feel a loss of independence, and I would hate to see what happen. Also, can you tell me what indications there are that someone should no longer be on the road?

Thanks for your help!

A. As we age, the prospect of giving up our car keys can be upsetting, and often challenging for everyone involved. This is because, for many of us, the ability to drive represents independence, freedom, social connection, and vitality.

As you probably know, driving requires people to see and hear clearly; pay close attention to other cars, traffic signs and signals, and pedestrians; and react quickly to events. Drivers must be able to accurately judge distances and speeds and monitor movement on both sides as well in front of them. It’s common for people to have declines in visual, cognitive, and physical abilities as they get older. The following factors warrant monitoring and possible driving cessation:

Health Conditions: Physical and mental impairments that accompany aging, such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, can compromise driving agility and judgment.

Vision Impairment: From accurately reading the speedometer to detecting pedestrians on the side of the road, good driving requires good eyesight. Deterioration in vision is an inevitable effect of aging. Older eyes are more susceptible to cataracts, glaucoma, and other problems that impair vision.

Hearing Impairment: Few people age without some deterioration in their hearing. Hearing loss can happen gradually, without the person realizing it, and undermine the ability to hear horns, screeching tires, sirens, and other sounds that would normally put someone on high alert.

Prescription Drug Use and Drug Interactions: Many drugs can compromise driving ability by causing drowsiness, blurred vision, confusion, tremors, or other side effects.

Problems with reflexes and range of motion: Sometimes older drivers who have problems with reflexes or range of motion are not able to react quickly enough to brake suddenly or quickly look back.  Sometimes older drivers also confuse the gas and brake pedals, finding themselves getting flustered while driving, or quick to anger.

Memory Loss: Memory loss can impact driving if the driver misses exits that used to be second nature or gets lost frequently.

Alcohol Abuse: Drinking and driving is always a dangerous combination. As people age, alcohol remains in the system longer and tolerance declines. Also, elderly folks are likely to be on medication, which can exacerbate the effects of alcohol. If you drink, don’t drive. If you suspect that your family member is drinking and driving, don’t wait to take action.

The Brain Training and Driving Study: Keeping Seniors on the Road Longer

A recent study showed that seniors who stopped driving were nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression and almost five times as likely to go into a long-term care facility as those who still drove. However, there has been some promising research suggesting that brain exercises could help keep older adults in the driver’s seat longer.

A decade ago, Penn State University researchers tested a sampling of 65+year-olds. The Brain Training and Driving Study involved a group of about 2,400 healthy adults ages 65 and older who were currently driving. A portion received cognitive training in either reasoning, memory, or speed of processing. The rest received no training.

They revisited these test subjects 10 years later, and found that the older adults who participated in so-called “brain training” ― exercises designed to improve cognitive ability ― were more likely to continue driving through their 80s than those who did not.

Lesley A. Ross, Penn State assistant professor of human development and family studies, said in a press release that the study measured the effects of three cognitive training programs ― reasoning, memory, and divided attention ― on driving cessation in older adults. Those who completed the reasoning and speed of processing training were 55% and 49% less likely to stop driving within 10 years, respectively. Those in the memory training group experienced “no significant effects,” the study said.

All of the 2,000 participants were drivers at the start of the program and were in good health. The participants were evaluated seven times over the course of 10 years. Participants were asked, among other things, to memorize their shopping lists and to look at images on a PC screen and try to remember them a few seconds later. A part of the sample did not participate in these exercises. Some of the other participants in the speed of processing group received “booster” training sessions. Their group was 70% less likely to stop driving within 10 years.

The study concludes by saying the reasoning and speed of processing training “should be recommended to older adults at risk for mobility decline due to cognitive difficulties.” Ross and colleagues plan to continue to study the effect of cognitive training, including the introduction of Xbox Kinect, a gaming platform, into future research.

Sharpening Your Brain to Maintain Safe Driving Skills

Looking for ways to sharpen your brain to enhance your driving skills? According to AARP, the following quick tips should be kept in mind as you select activities to do so:

1. Variety: Mastering a new skill gets easier with time and practice, so introduce some variety into the types of activities you choose. By changing exercises on a regular basis, your mind will have to work harder to accomplish the task.

2. Challenge: Never let any exercise become too routine — including those for your brain. Challenge yourself with activities that have increasing levels of difficulty.

3. Novelty: Try new things. Parts of the brain (such as the prefrontal cortex) are “exercised” most when you learn to master new cognitive challenges.

For tips and strategies on how to remain a safe driver, consider taking the AARP Smart Driver course — the nation’s first and largest refresher course designed specifically for older drivers. The AARP Smart Driver course is available in a classroom and online, in both English and Spanish. In some states, you may even be eligible for a multiyear insurance discount on completion of the course. For more information, go to or call 877-846-3299.

Plan in Advance

Planning in advance for cessation of driving or for ways to enhance your driving skills and stay on the road longer can help keep you and others safer on the road. If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, call us to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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