Should Parkinson's Patients Drive?
Latest Study Adds to Research That Disease Impairs Ability
"My own view: There should be established rules concerning Parkinson's patients and their right to drive," Frucht tells WebMD. "Prior studies show that even patients with mild Parkinson's have unrecognized driving deficits. But this is a very touchy subject."
Parkinson's is caused by a gradual but steady deterioration of nerves in the part of the brain that controls movement, causing muscle rigidity, tremors, poor balance and slowness in movement and reaction. In later stages, it can cause memory loss. It affects about 1 1/2 million Americans, usually after age 50.
While numerous studies have shown that the disease does impair driving -- by the disease itself and the medication to treat it -- efforts even to bring up the issue are usually rare, says Zesiewicz.
"We don't want to bring it up," she tells WebMD. "Patients love to drive and it increases their quality of life; it gives them independence. When doctors broach the driving topic, it's met with resistance -- by the patients and their families. I think many doctors are unaware of the problem, but others may feel they'll be unpopular with their patients."
There is also debate on when Parkinson's severely impacts driving ability, and some question how it compares to deficits caused by normal aging. In Zesiewicz's study, for instance, 20% of both early-stage Parkinson's patients and "healthy" seniors at the same age caused simulated accidents.
"There have been studies finding that age had more influence on driving ability, or the lack of it, than early or middle stages of Parkinson's," says Judy Rosner, a spokeswoman for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. "I don't think you can establish driving guidelines because this disease affects different people in different ways. Our recommendation is, if you are concerned about a family member, bring them in for testing. Let the appropriate officials decide if they are able to drive."
Ellie Martin, a spokeswoman for the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says her agency has "no opinion" on whether Parkinsonians should have driving restrictions. "Any and all laws pertaining to who can drive and who can't are decided by the individual state," she tells WebMD.