If This Happens While Parking, Get Checked for Alzheimer's, Experts Warn

Don't overlook this subtle symptom. Your safety depends on it.

Right now, more than 55 million people around the world are living with dementia, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and a new case is diagnosed every three seconds. Though there are many forms of dementia, Alzheimer's disease (AD) is considered the most common, and currently affects over 6.5 million Americans. Alzheimer's causes both cognitive and physical symptoms that worsen over time, ultimately affecting every area of a person's life. Now, experts are raising awareness about one change in particular that's both physical and cognitive—and can reveal itself when you're parking your car. Read on to learn which symptom may be putting you at risk behind the wheel, and why it's crucial to talk to your doctor if you notice it.

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The earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's often go undetected.

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Even in its earliest stages, Alzheimer's disease can present with a wide range of symptoms. According to Verna Porter, MD, a neurologist and director of the Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Providence Saint John's Health Center in California, worsening cognitive problems are typically among the most distinct symptoms of Alzheimer's. "Dementia is characterized by marked, persistent, and disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment, or abstract reasoning that significantly interfere with and disrupt your normal daily activities," Porter explains.

While people may experience mild memory changes as a normal part of aging, the neurologist says this is very distinct from dementia. When normal aging is to blame, "memory lapses have little impact on your daily life, or your ability to carry on the usual chores, tasks and routines that comprise our daily lives."

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If you notice this while parking your car, get checked for Alzheimer's.

Happy mature woman driving a car
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One notable cognitive change that's common among people with Alzheimer's disease or related forms of dementia is having difficulty with visuospatial processing. This symptom occurs when the brain has trouble processing information about three-dimensional objects and interpreting spatial relationships. When this type of processing is impaired, it becomes difficult to orient to our surroundings and judge how far away objects are. Having impaired visuospatial processing can make parking a car difficult, even in the earliest stages of AD, the Alzheimer's Society warns.

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Here's why it happens, experts say.

older man with dementiia looking out window
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Many people with dementia experience changes to their vision. However, the Alzheimer's Society warns that even when a person's eyes are still physically healthy, "their vision may be affected if the brain is damaged."

The organization explains why this can occur: "Different parts of the brain process different types of information. The occipital lobes at the back of the brain process visual information. If the occipital lobes become damaged, a person may find it hard to work out what they see in front of them. This causes misperceptions," their experts say.

They add that the brain's temporal and parietal lobes are also involved in judging distances (as well as recognizing faces and objects), meaning you may notice changes with visuospatial perception if these areas of the brain become damaged.

Driving is a top concern for Alzheimer's patients.

Older man driving a car
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Experts say if you believe you are experiencing symptoms of dementia—including new difficulty with parking your car—it's crucial to have your driving evaluated immediately. That's because the same changes that affect your ability to park could also be putting you in danger while on the road. Porter tells Best Life that visuospatial decline and poor reaction speed "may start to manifest relatively early in the disease," meaning you may be at increased risk of a car accident, even absent other notable symptoms of AD.

However, some people with Alzheimer's may be able to continue driving with frequent evaluations from their doctor. "A diagnosis of dementia may not mean that a person can no longer drive safely. In the early stages of dementia, some—though not all—individuals may still possess skills necessary for safe driving," explains the Family Caregiver Alliance, a resource for the families of those with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. "Most dementia, however, is progressive, meaning that symptoms such as memory loss, visual-spatial disorientation, and decreased cognitive function will worsen over time. This also means that a person's driving skills will decrease and, eventually, he or she will have to give up driving."

Because those with Alzheimer's are often unaware of the severity of their own symptoms, it's important for others to be involved in this decision. "Families and caregivers may have to intervene when an individual's symptoms pose too great a traffic risk," the organization advises.

Speak with your doctor if you have any questions about whether you or a loved one can continue to drive safely, or if you notice new difficulty with parking your car.

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