As the number of elderly drivers steadily increases, the decision about when it's time to stop driving often falls to their children, who must make the gut-wrenching choice to take away the car keys, and often, their parents' independence.
But two Connecticut doctors are studying various aspects of elderly driving and their findings could eventually make the decision-making process easier or perhaps even keep elderly drivers on the road longer.
At Yale New Haven Hospital, geriatrics researcher Dr. Richard Marottoli is studying driving longevity in women compared to men. He's working to identify gender differences, determine whether women are more likely to stop driving sooner than men, and whether there is any relationship between brain volume, adverse driving experiences and medical history as it relates to the ability to drive safely.
At UConn Health Center on Aging in Farmington, Dr. Kevin Manning, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry, is conducting a separate study using a Patterson Grant, defining what aging factors affect driving ability, identifying correctable difficulties that could help extend the driving lifetime and measuring how loss of a driver's license is associated with the risk of depression and mortality.
"This is becoming a bigger issue, especially with baby boomers who are more independent than their parents were," Manning said. "It's a generation that does not want to be dependent on someone else when it comes to getting around and is more reluctant to give up driving, which is the key to independence."
"Hopefully our study will help identify early signs of mild cognitive impairment that are not associated with dementia," Manning said. "And even if we can prolong driving for a year, it would make a good difference when you look at the population as a whole."
The Federal Highway Administration reports that there were about 24.4 million licensed drivers 70 and older in 2014, and that those drivers travel fewer miles than others but keep their licenses longer. The number of licensed drivers age 70 and older increased 38 percent between 1997 and 2014.
By 2030, 85 percent to 90 percent of the 70 million Americans 65 and older will still be licensed and driving, the American Automobile Association says.
In Connecticut, there are an estimated 2.6 million licensed drivers, with just over 322,000 of them 70 years or older in 2015. Connecticut has no restrictions on license renewals; a driver 65 and older can renew a license for 6 years or 2 years, the option is a personal choice.
Marottoli, whose research is funded through the Women's Health Research at Yale's Pilot Project Program, is using data collected from about 2,700 women on how, why and when they drove, as well as whether they had any adverse events, such as crashes or tickets. Marottoli said the information would be compared to a previous study done on elderly male drivers.
Marottoli, medical director of the Dorothy Adler Geriatric Assessment Center, said, "The important issue is whether older women are more likely to stop driving than men and do they live longer after that cessation. I think we are going to find more commonalities than differences, but I want to use this research to have a better understanding of gender differences and determine if there are interventions to keep them on the road longer, and if not, look at transitioning to other transportation to keep them mobile."
Manning hopes to prolong drivers' days on the road, focusing on identifying potential medical and cognitive challenges in older individuals; establishing benchmarks with a series of tests, assessing the degree of driving competence; and, when possible, teaching patients how to compensate for driving errors so that they can stay on the road.
Among the tools he uses is a state-of-the-art driving simulator that tests patients on a variety of driving maneuvers and hazards. The simulator prompts the "driver" to maneuver a simulated vehicle along a roadway that is on a computer screen. The test helps pinpoint cognitive declines like vision problems, range of motion or other physical changes in driving ability while also testing response time and the capability to follow speed limits, traffic signals and other driving rules.
"We know that when someone can no longer drive, there is an increased risk of depression and mortality because you are taking away their independence," Manning said. "We want to keep drivers and others safe so when we see through our testing that a driver is having issues like difficulty judging a turn or preparing for oncoming traffic, we can train them to handle driving errors we have identified."
"The research is intriguing," said Nora L. Duncan, state director of the AARP Connecticut, which hosts classroom programs to assess and re-educate elderly drivers.
"Anything that helps preserve independence and allows people to age in the community of their choice is worth exploring, both in terms of extending safe driving abilities and in terms of expanding alternative transportation options," Duncan said.
Sherry Brown of Hartford, said she learned a lot from her experience with her elderly mother, who lived in the South and, despite reluctantly giving up her driver's license, refused to move to Connecticut.
"I have built a house near my daughter so I have someone I can turn to for transportation," Brown said. "I see it as a partnership, not an inconvenience," she said. "I know how worried and unhappy and scared I was knowing my mom was driving. I don't want to do that to my family."
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).