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Cognitive Changes
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Cognitive changes
in older drivers

Some cognitive changes happen naturally as we age. These include:

  • Reaction timeA 2014 study found that both mental and physical response times decline as we age (the decline begins by the age of 24). The bottom line: You probably won’t be able to beat your grandkids at video games. More seriously, you probably won’t react as quickly to driving situations like a dog running into the road, or the car in front of you stopping suddenly.  However, it doesn’t mean you cannot drive. In fact, most older drivers compensate for slower reaction times by driving slower, although driving too slow can become a problem.
  • Attention—Both selective attention and divided attention tend to decline with age.
    • Selective attention is the ability to focus on important information and filter out other distractions (for instance, finding your exit on the freeway).
    • Divided attention (or multi-tasking) is the ability to divide focus between two or more stimuli (such as paying attention to oncoming traffic and traffic signals simultaneously). 
  • Processing speed—Processing is the ability of the brain to organize information into patterns so that we can use it to make decisions or answer questions. Processing speed also tends to slow as we age.   

Other cognitive changes often occur as a result of medical conditions, such as:

Stroke

Potential cognitive difficulties after a stroke include:

  • Trouble understanding and processing language
  • Decreased problem-solving abilities
  • Decreased processing speed (needing more time to think and answer)

Parkinson’s Disease

A neurodegenerative disease, Parkinson’s is best known for its physical symptoms, such as tremors and slowness of movement. However, cognitive changes as a result of Parkinson’s can include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Problems with language
  • Problems with planning
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with multi-tasking
  • Decreased processing speed

Both the physical and cognitive issues of Parkinson’s in the later stages of the disease significantly increase risk and require driving cessation.   

Multiple Sclerosis

Cognitive impairment occurs in 40-65% of individuals with multiple sclerosis, leading to a reduced ability to focus, decreased processing speed and memory problems. As with Parkinson’s, both the physical and cognitive effects of the disease increase risk for crashes.   

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