Should People With Alzheimer’s Disease Be Driving?

Your mom has mild Alzheimer’s disease, but she still wants to drive to the grocery store. Should you let her? According to one group of researchers, you may as well, because statistically, she’s no more likely to have an accident than other seniors her age.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, concluded in a recent study that although road test studies have shown a clear decline in average driving ability with increasing severity of dementia, some drivers in the very mild or mild stages of the disease are still judged to be safe.

The researchers looked at the driving records of 34 patients with very mild dementia of the Alzheimer’s type, 29 with mild Alzheimer’s, and 58 without dementia. The average age of participants was 77, and all had been driving for at least 10 years. The patients with dementia had already been diagnosed as part of another study.

As part of the study, all participants took a road test, reported on their driving and accident history, and kept a driving journal for a week so researchers could see how many miles they had driven. For each person, another adult who knew the participant well reported on his or her driving history. The health and medical researchers also examined state motor vehicle records for all participants.

Although most studies of drivers with dementia report that they have more car crashes, the three groups in this study did not differ significantly in number of accidents over the previous five years. But writing in the January 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, the researchers noted that because the number of accidents was so small, they would have needed at least 300 people in the study to find any differences among the groups.

The researchers also reported that the participants with dementia were more likely to have crashes that were their fault and due to inattention or failure to yield. So should seniors with mild or very mild Alzheimer’s continue to drive? Well, the jury’s still out.

An editorial in the same issue pointed out that what’s needed is a system that can determine “which individuals are truly at increased risk,” rather than prohibiting people of a certain age or with a specific illness from driving.