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Early Alzheimer's May Hamper Driving

Study Shows 'Potentially Hazardous Driving' in Patients With Mild Alzheimer's Disease
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 23, 2008 -- Even the early stages of Alzheimer's disease may impair driving ability, new research shows.

In a new study, people with very mild or mild Alzheimer's disease had more accidents and worse scores on a road test than people of the same age without Alzheimer's disease.

Brian Ott, MD, of Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, R.I., and colleagues report their findings in today's advance online edition of Neurology.

(As a caregiver, what made you decide it was time to take away the keys? Talk with others on our Alzheimer’s Disease: Support Group message board.)

Driving and Alzheimer's Disease

The study included 128 older drivers (average age: 75) who got brain scans and took mental skills tests. The group included 84 people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

During the three-year study, participants took a driving test at least twice and reported any accidents they had.

Ott's team checked state driving records to confirm participants' self-reported crash records. They also advised people who failed the driving test to stop driving.

Throughout the study, the Alzheimer's patients showed riskier driving profiles. They were more likely to fail their first driving test, had a bigger drop in their road test scores over time, and had a worse accident record than people without Alzheimer's.

People with very mild Alzheimer's disease performed better than those with mild Alzheimer's disease. But driving ability "declines fairly rapidly among patients with dementia," the researchers say, adding that the patients they studied may not represent all Alzheimer's patients.

Not Safe to Drive?

Ott's team argues that "vigilance and re-assessment of driving competence should be considered for all older drivers, regardless of whether or not they have cognitive impairment."

As for elders with mild dementia, Ott and colleagues say it would be "reasonable" to assess driving privileges every six months, though that may be expensive and not available nationwide.

But there are different views on issues of driving, aging, and Alzheimer's disease.

The American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and the American Academy of Neurology support considering halting driving for all Alzheimer's patients, including people with mild Alzheimer's disease, according to Ott's team.

But the Alzheimer's Association states on its web site that "a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease alone is not a reason to take away driving privileges" and that driving decisions should rest with caregivers.

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