Driving helps prevent cognitive impairment

Those of us who drive daily do not realize the complexity of this act. This is due to the fact, over time we drive automatically. But driving requires a number of cognitive skills, including executive functions, information processing, visual processing, and memory.

We have to be aware of many stimuli at the same time, having our foot in the clutch and the brake, changing gears, observing the cars passing by, etc. Without the cerebellum, we would be like novices all of our lives.

Driving is positive for cognitive health in the elderly

But of course all of these cognitive functions deteriorate over time, Make driving difficult and dangerous. However, a recent study suggests that driving cognitive demands can help prevent cognitive impairment caused by aging. In other words, driving could play a beneficial role in the cognitive health of the elderly.

We have always talked about how important it is for seniors to stay active, but we never said that driving would also bring these benefits. Of course, people who cannot drive safely should forgo collecting the keys and starting the vehicle, but several previous studies have shown that stopping driving is associated with a decrease in the emotional and physical health of older people. Now also to cognitive impairment.

Study data and results

The recent study was conducted by three behavior specialists, Moon Choi (University of Kentucky) Matthew C. Lohman (University of Kentucky) and Brian Mezuk (Commonwealth University of Virginia) and their results showed that driving a vehicle helps maintain cognitive functions.

“Previous research has indicated that there is a negative association between poor cognitive functioning and stopping driving,” explain Choi and his colleagues. “However, our results suggest that stopping driving may also be a risk factor that accelerates cognitive impairment over time. This suggests that the relationship between stopping driving and cognitive functioning could be two-way.

Choi and his collaborators analyzed data from over 9,000 people over 10 years of age: from 1998 to 2008. Subjects took a cognitive telephone test that assessed memory, mental processing speed, level of knowledge, and language. Subjects were also asked what their current driving status was, i.e. whether they were driving or not, or whether they had driven before.

The researchers found that participants who stopped driving had accelerated cognitive impairment within 10 years of stopping driving, compared to active drivers.

Seniors who do not drive are a higher risk group for dementia

“This study suggests that older people who lack mobility while driving are a group at higher risk for cognitive impairment. They therefore benefit from social interventions that promote social, psychological and cognitive engagement.”, Say the researchers,

Regarding this type of intervention, a team of scientists led by psychologist Jerri Edwards (University of South Florida) designed a program focused on the cognitive training of seniors who were at risk of car accidents and cognitive decline.

The cognitive training program

Edwards and his colleagues recruited around 500 older adults (60 years and older) to participate in the trial. All participants completed a visual processing speed task in which poor performance in this task indicated a higher risk of car accidents. The 134 participants who received low scores on this test were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a cognitive training intervention or a control group in which they received computer training.

Participants in both interventions met with a coach in small groups for 10 one-hour sessions. Members of the cognitive training group completed computer exercises designed to improve the speed of information processing, such as visual identification and localization (cars and trucks) and auditory objects (series of sounds). Participants in the computer training group completed training exercises on basic computer use, such as using e-mail.

The 366 participants who showed no signs of cognitive slowing in the visual processing speed task served as a reference group.

The follow-up phase

Three years later, a follow-up was carried out, and the researchers found that older drivers who had received cognitive training drove and had a low rate of risk. In contrast, participants who were assigned to the computer training group (or control group) experienced decreased driving, as well as greater difficulty performing, as noted in the subsequent assessment.

Training at cognitive processing speed may not only improve cognitive performance, but may protect decreased mobility in the elderly, ”wrote Edwards and colleagues in their article. According to science, cognitive training has the potential to improve the daily lives of older people in many ways, ”the authors add.

There are some limitations in the study

However, both groups of researchers are wary of their findings and they admit that there are limits. Beyond cognitive or health issues, older people often report financial difficulties as one of the reasons they stop driving.

People living in more densely populated areas may have better access to alternative means of transport and therefore may have different cognitive outcomes than older people living in more isolated or rural areas.

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