If You Notice This When Driving, It Could Be an Early Sign of Dementia

This subtle driving habit could signal a major problem.

Nothing feels better than the freedom of hitting the open road, but as you age, getting behind the wheel becomes a riskier proposition. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (via The San Diego Tribune), your chances of a driving fatality increase by roughly ten times between the ages of 69 and 85. Often the result of mild cognitive impairment—which can lead to confusion, slower response times, and poor driving decision—many of these age-related accidents could be avoided by recognizing the early signs of dementia, experts say.

A new study published in the medical journal Geriatrics has shed light on these risky driving patterns, which could also help you identify a problem before it's too late. Read on to find out which dangerous driving habits may suggest a dementia diagnosis, and what to do if you suspect your skills are slipping.

RELATED: This Dementia Sign Can Show Up 16 Years Before Diagnosis, New Study Says.

Hard braking or hard accelerating can be a sign of dementia.

Senior man sitting in car driving

The Geriatrics study assessed how driving data might predict mild cognitive impairment, and found that there were several cues in people's driving that can indicate a problem. Using in-vehicle recording devices, they discovered that drivers between the ages of 65 and 79 who regularly practiced hard braking and hard accelerating were statistically more likely to later develop dementia. The researchers concluded that, for this reason, the frequency of hard braking events can be monitored as a reliable early indicator of cognitive impairment.

Of course, if cognitive impairment is subtly changing your driving habits, you're unlikely to notice on your own. However, you can take note of your typical gas mileage—which is notably affected by rapid or erratic acceleration and braking—and look out for any major changes as you age.

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Confusing the gas and brake pedals may also be an indication of the condition.

Car crash, car accident

Your braking patterns aren't the only possible behind-the-wheel signs of cognitive impairment and dementia. The Mayo Clinic also warns that confusing the gas and brake pedals can be another sign that your cognitive functions are in decline.

In fact, it's a common enough phenomenon among dementia patients that it has a name: "pedal misapplication." According to The San Diego Tribune, the mistake is often "caused by a loss of mental and physical agility, either because of disease, medications or physical deterioration due to old age."

RELATED: If You're Craving This, It Could Be an Early Sign of Dementia, Study Says.

Making "slow or poor driving decisions" can be another sign of dementia.

Senior man having bad eye sight and making effort to see the road.

If you've noticed that your driving skills are slipping more generally, it may also be a sign of dementia. The Mayo Clinic says that making "slow or poor driving decisions" more frequently than usual could signal neurological decline.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes that this can take several forms behind the wheel. Some people may only take notice of a problem after noticing unintentional speeding, sudden lane changes, receiving "two or more traffic tickets," or seeing their insurance premiums go up. You may also find that well-meaning friends, family members, or neighbors may comment about your driving more often, or even express their concern for your safety.

Getting lost while driving may also tip you off to a problem.

car rental gps

Finally, the Mayo Clinic shares that getting lost while driving in familiar or unfamiliar places may be another sign of a  neurological problem. However, the NIA notes that in many cases, the driver may not be conscious that there is a problem at all, due to memory lapses. For this reason, they recommend noting how long it takes to run your usual errands if you suspect a problem. "Taking a long time to do a simple errand and not being able to explain why…may indicate the person got lost," the organization warns.

If you suspect dementia or other mild cognitive impairment, your safest bet is to schedule a driving assessment. You can begin by consulting this national database of driving specialists maintained by The American Occupational Therapy Association, or request a recommendation from your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.

RELATED: Doing This One Thing Twice a Day Lowers Your Dementia Risk, Study Says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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