Medical Moment: Driving with dementia

Catching early brain changes
Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 6:53 PM EDT
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About one in three adults with dementia continue to be active drivers and 50 percent of them continue driving for up to three years after their diagnosis.

But now a new trial is under way to see whether cognitive changes that may lead to dementia down the road could be detected through driving years earlier.

Norman and Joyce Dohm like to travel the old fashion way.

“He doesn’t like to fly,” Joyce says. “We just like to see the USA by wheels.”

But this year, Norman will be 80 years old, and he knows he has a greater risk for mild cognitive impairment which can affect his driving.

“When you drive, you have to take into account dozens, if not hundreds of different things happening at once,” says Ruth Tappen, professor at Florida Atlantic University. “And that’s hard when your brain isn’t working as well as it used to.”

Especially for drivers with dementia. They may have difficulty changing lanes, making left turns, merging, following routes, or even driving at night. But researchers believe that cognitive changes seen during driving may give early insight to dementia before noticeable symptoms can be seen.

“I think of it as a brand new early warning system,” Tappen says.

They are partnering with engineers to develop and test an in-vehicle sensing system equipped with on board diagnostics, GPS, and cameras. “Driver facing video can have AI that can detect dodginess, distractions, and it can also track eye movement,” says Jinwoo Jang, assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Their goal is to see which driving changes indicate cognitive decline. Norman is taking part in the trial with the in-vehicle sensing system. Even though Norman and his wife feel he is a safe driver now, any changes detected by the system can give them an early warning so Norman can hit the brakes.

“I want to be safe to drive so nobody else will be endangered because of me,” Norman says.

The trial will follow drivers for three years. Participants need to be 65 or older with no cognitive impairment, a driver’s license, a car and car insurance.

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