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Driving helps prevent cognitive decline

Driving helps prevent cognitive decline

August 11, 2022

Those who drive daily do not realize the complexity of this act. This is because, Over time, we drive automatically . But driving requires a series of cognitive skills including executive functions, information processing, visual processing and memory.

We have to be aware of many stimuli at the same time, have the foot in the clutch and the brake, change gear, observe the cars that cross us, etc. If it were not for the cerebellum, we would drive like novices all our lives.

Driving is positive for the cognitive health of the elderly

But of course, all these cognitive functions deteriorate over time , making driving difficult and dangerous. However, a recent study suggests that the cognitive demands of driving may help prevent cognitive decline caused by aging. In other words, driving could have a beneficial role for the cognitive health of the elderly.

There has always been talk of how important it is for older people to remain active, but there had never been any talk that driving also brought these benefits. It is clear that people who are unable to drive safely must give up taking the keys and turn on the vehicle, but several previous studies had already shown that leaving driving is associated with a decrease in emotional and physical health for the elderly . Now also to cognitive deterioration.

Data and results of the study

The recent study was carried out by three behavioral scientists, Moon Choi (University of Kentucky) Matthew C. Lohman (University of Kentucky), and Brian Mezuk (Commonwealth University of Virginia) and their results showed that driving a vehicle helps to maintain cognitive functions.

"Previous research has indicated that there is a negative association between poor cognitive functioning and stopping driving," Choi and his colleagues explain. "However, our results suggest that stopping driving may also be a risk factor that accelerates cognitive decline over time, which suggests that the relationship between driving cessation and cognitive functioning may be bidirectional."

Choi and his collaborators analyzed the data of more than 9000 older individuals for 10 years: from 1998 to 2008 . Subjects completed a cognitive test by telephone that evaluated memory, mental processing speed, level of knowledge and language. Subjects were also asked what their current driving status was, that is, whether they drove or not, or if they had never driven.

The researchers found that participants who had stopped driving showed accelerated cognitive decline during the 10 years after they stopped driving, compared to active drivers.

Older people who do not drive are a group with greater risk of cognitive deterioration

"This study suggests that older people who do not have mobility through driving a vehicle are a group with greater risk of suffering cognitive impairment. So they would benefit from social interventions that promote social, psychological and cognitive commitment, "argue the researchers,

Regarding this type of interventions, a team of scientists led by psychologist Jerri Edwards (University of South Florida) designed a program focused on cognitive training for seniors who were at risk of car accidents and a decrease cognitive

The cognitive training program

Edwards and his colleagues recruited about 500 older adults (60 years and older) to participate in the trial. All the participants completed a visual task of processing speed in which poor performance in this task indicated an increased risk of car accidents. The 134 participants who received the low scores in this test were assigned to one of the two groups at random: a cognitive training intervention or a control group in which they received computer training.

Participants in both interventions met with a coach in small groups for 10 one-hour sessions . Those who were in the cognitive training group completed computer exercises designed to improve the speed of information processing, such as the identification and visual location (cars and trucks) and auditory objects (series of tones). The participants of the computer training group completed the training exercises in the basic use of the computer, such as, for example, the use of electronic mail.

The 366 participants who did not show signs of cognitive slowing in the visual task processing speed served as the reference group.

The follow-up phase

Three years later it was followed up, and the researchers found that older drivers who had received cognitive training were driving and had a low risk rate. In contrast, the participants assigned to the computer training group (or control group) experienced a decrease in driving, as well as greater difficulty in carrying it out, as they stated in the subsequent evaluation.

Training in the speed of cognitive processing can not only improve cognitive performance, but can protect the decline in mobility in the elderly, "write in his article Edwards and his collaborators. Cognitive training programs, according to science, have the potential to improve the daily lives of older people in many ways, "the authors add.

There are some limitations in the study

Even so, both groups of researchers are cautious with their results and admit that there are limitations . Beyond cognitive or health problems, older people also frequently report financial difficulties as one of the reasons why they stop driving.

Those who live in the most densely populated areas may have greater access to alternative means of transport, and therefore may have different cognitive outcomes than older people living in more isolated or rural areas.

Encouraging but Inconclusive: Interventions that May Help Prevent Cognitive Decline and Dementia (August 2022).

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