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Jan 17, 2024

Medical Conditions That Put the Brakes on Driving

Older woman driving a car

North American drivers, age 70 and older, are active on the road, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of surveyed older adults driving three to five days a week, and more than half (56%) averaging more than 25 miles per week, according to Home Instead®.

Advanced age is not a factor in a person’s ability to drive. However, certain medical problems or medication side effects can signal that it’s time to give up the car keys.

“Age, including into the higher 80s, has nothing to do with the capacity to drive,” said Elin Schold Davis, Project Coordinator, Older Driver Initiative, American Occupational Therapy Association. “It does have to do with changes in vision, physical skills such as the ability to reach, turn and work the pedals, and cognitive capabilities such as recalling the rules of the road, making decisions and navigating.”

Three Important Abilities for Drivers

Whether an older adult can continue driving or not may come down to the amount of time it takes to make important decisions on the road.

“Driving is the one IADL (Instrumental Activity of Daily Living) that cannot be modified beyond a certain point,” Schold Davis said. “There is a time component. For example, a senior with declining physical abilities can take all day to get dressed. They can modify the process and take the time needed to get it done. But you can’t take all day to make a left-hand turn when driving.”

According to experts, the most important abilities for drivers are:

  • Good vision in both day and night driving
  • Physical abilities: reaching, turning and working the pedals
  • Cognitive abilities: understanding the rules of the road, making decisions and navigating


Medical Issues that May Hinder Driving

The BrightFocus Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals save their mind and sight by supporting research to end Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and glaucoma, highlights the following issues that could put older adults in particular jeopardy on the road:

Alzheimer’s Disease
Over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease will likely begin to lose faculties vital for driving, including reflexes, coordination, reaction time, eyesight, hearing, judgment, and the ability to orient themselves.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
AMD is a common eye disease that causes deterioration of the macula, the tissue located in the central part of the retina. AMD causes blurriness and blind spots in the middle of a person’s field of vision. This results in dependence on peripheral vision, seeing things out of the corner of the eye while looking straight ahead. Peripheral vision often lacks sharpness and clarity and is not sufficient for driving.

In contrast to AMD, the various forms of glaucoma are more likely to initially cause problems with peripheral vision. Drivers with peripheral vision loss may have trouble noticing traffic signs on the side of the road or seeing cars and pedestrians about to cross their path. As glaucoma progresses, central vision also becomes impaired.

Medication Usage
Medication usage typically increases in older adults. Many drugs have adverse side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, hazy vision, unsteadiness, fainting and slowed reaction time. Common medications that may cause side effects include sleep aids, antidepressants, antihistamines for allergies and colds and strong painkillers.

Also, taking several different drugs together may create serious side effects. Many commonly prescribed drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease also have side effects. Consult with a physician or pharmacist before the start of any drug treatment regimen to determine how it may affect your senior loved one’s driving ability.

Signs of a Problem

Having a particular medical condition does not necessarily mean an aging loved one will have to stop driving. However, it’s very important that family caregivers and neighbors pay close attention to how well an older adult may drive.

If you or someone you know is concerned about a senior’s driving, talk to a doctor and consider recommending a driving test or evaluation.

Also, learn more about the 10 signs an older adult may be unsafe on the road. Mysterious dents on the car or a delayed response time may indicate the need for a serious conversation or transportation support from a professional caregiver. Find a Home Instead location near you to see how a trained Care Professional could support your loved one.

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