Prof. finds Alzheimer’s makes driving risky

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Alzheimer’s disease, in its early stages, may significantly increase the risks of driving, according to a recent study by Professor of Clinical Neurosciences Brian Ott.

Patients with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease experienced a more rapid and greater decline on driving tests than other elderly people, according to an article by Ott, director of Rhode Island Hospital’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center, published by the journal Neurology last month.

The study tested the driving ability of 128 elderly individuals – 84 in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and 44 of normal cognitive ability – over a three-year period. The patients self-reported their driving accidents, which researchers verified with state records.

The motivation behind the experiment was to allow government officials to make informed decisions about driving safety regulations, Ott said. Ultimately, he added, he would like further research on the topic to yield a “simple and reliable screening test” to evaluate cognitively impaired drivers.

The study encountered several surprises – first, how few accidents the Alzheimer’s group had, in part because the study recommended patients refrain from driving once they became hazardous, effectively removing the most dangerous drivers from the roads.

Another surprise was that cognitively normal drivers also experienced a decline in driving ability, though it was not as rapid as the drop off in the Alzheimer’s group.

Ott’s study is the most recent of several that draws attention to the University’s leading role in aging research. Fifty-thousand-dollar grants were recently awarded to two professors for extending the lives of fruit flies, and in November, the National Institute on Aging awarded a $10-million grant to Brown to study long-term care in nursing homes.

Drivers with Alzheimer’s initially experience difficulty processing visual information and later have trouble executing decisions, leading to particular problems at intersections, Ott said.

The study also found that lower education, increased age and cognitive impairment independently caused poorer driving performance.

In further research, Ott said he plans to place cameras in elderly people’s cars to circumvent the anxiety of a formal road-testing situation that often skews results.