Doing This When You Drive Could Be an Early Sign of Dementia, Study Says

Researchers may have found a way to accurately predict the onset of the condition with data.

One of the hardest parts of dementia can be suddenly realizing it's affecting your everyday activities during its beginning phases. For some, the way they handle money can be an easily missed red flag of the condition's onset. But according to a new study, doing one thing in particular while driving could also be an early sign of dementia. Read on to see what you should be mindful of when you're behind the wheel.

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Hard-braking a lot while driving can be an early sign of dementia.

Senior man having bad eye sight and making effort to see the road.
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A study recently published in the medical journal Geriatrics used data from in-vehicle recording devices installed in 2977 participants' cars who were active drivers between the ages of 65 and 79. When data recording began in August 2015, none of the participants had recorded medical histories of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or other degenerative medical conditions.

The study focused on 29 variables over the course of nearly four years, during which 33 of the participants were newly diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and 31 with dementia by the time the study ended in April 2019. When it came to driving habits, data showed that the number of hard-braking events was a reliable early indicator of the onset of dementia.

A combination of data can very accurately predict the onset of dementia and MCI.

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The researchers found that while age was the top predictor of dementia in participants, other data besides the number of hard-braking events could also signal the condition in drivers.  The results also found that specific behaviors such as a high percentage of drives taken within 15 minutes of home and the length of certain trips could be indicators.

But while driving data alone was only found to be 66 percent accurate in predicting the onset of the disease, it became much more precise when coupled with more information from the driver. "Based on variables derived from the naturalistic driving data and basic demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, and education level, we could predict mild cognitive impairment and dementia with 88 percent accuracy," Sharon Di, PhD, associate professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics at Columbia Engineering and the study's lead author, said in a statement.

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Researchers think driving data could someday be used as a screening tool for the condition.

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Researchers say that the study's results could have major impacts on the future of finding and diagnosing the disease in its earliest phases, helping to secure earlier treatment. "Driving is a complex task involving dynamic cognitive processes and requiring essential cognitive functions and perceptual motor skill," Guohua Li, MD, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the study's senior author, said in a statement.

"Our study indicates that naturalistic driving behaviors can be used as comprehensive and reliable markers for mild cognitive impairment and dementia. If validated, the algorithms developed in this study could provide a novel, unobtrusive screening tool for early detection and management of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older drivers," he said.

Other serious signs can act as a warning that someone should stop driving.

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While the study could predict the onset of cognition issues with relatively high accuracy thanks to data, there are still some warning signs that could also indicate someone has dementia while driving. According to the Alzheimer's Association, this can include forgetting how to locate familiar places, failing to observe traffic signs or lights, driving at the wrong speed, hitting curbs, confusing the brake and gas pedal, returning from a regular drive later than usual, or forgetting the destination once on the road.

The Alzheimer's Association suggests that "a proactive strategy would be to get a comprehensive driving evaluation by an occupational therapy driving rehabilitation specialist." From there, it can become easier to assess how the disease may be affecting someone, adding that the earliest steps may involve reducing driving risk with the goal to "retain the highest level of independence and mobility in the community."

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Zachary Mack
Zachary covers beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He's the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in New York City and is a Certified Cicerone. Read more
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