Are Older Drivers Dangerous? How To Sharpen Your Driving Skills After 6011 months ago | Senior Health
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
I can still remember how excited I was when I got my driving license. In addition to giving me an enormous sense of pride and independence, it also was tangible proof that I was now really a “grown up” with all the rights and privileges that came with it.
It meant I no longer had to ask my parents or friends for a ride, that I had true mobility for the first time in my life and that my world had expanded beyond my neighborhood. It was a true rite of passage.
So, it’s not a surprise that for us boomers, the idea of not being able to drive as well as we used to, or not being able to drive at all, can be terrifying. It means reversing everything we gained when we first started to drive.
Rather than being able to drive whenever and wherever we want, we may need to start limiting our driving to the daytime. Or we may start avoiding things that we used to do with ease, such as freeway driving or left turns (which, to be honest, I never liked to begin with).
Of course, the most dreaded outcome is “the talk” with our kids and family where they tell us we should not be driving at all, which makes us feel stranded and totally dependent on others. Psychologically, it’s yet another one of those “rites of passage” but one that tells us we are getting older.
That our driving ability decreases with age is not something we should take lightly or try to rationalize away since the statistics are sobering.
Our risk for being injured and killed in a motor vehicle accident increases with age. A recent study showed that nearly 6,000 seniors were killed and 220,000 injured in traffic accidents in one year.
While we can’t avoid getting older, the good news is that there is a lot we can do to minimize the impact of aging on our ability to drive safely. Here are some of the key things that happen to our bodies that can affect our driving and what we can do about them:
As most of us have probably experienced by now, our eyesight changes as we get older. There is, perhaps, nothing more critical to safe driving than being able to see pedestrians, traffic signals and directional signs as well as the traffic situation in front of us.
We may be more or less sensitive to sun and glare as well as oncoming headlights. As boomers, it can take our eyes up to eight times longer to regain normal vision after exposure to bright light than someone in their teens.
Moreover, our vision may not be as sharp at night as it once was. Also, it may take a longer time for us to change focus from, let’s say, the road to the speedometer and back.
The two most common conditions that can impact our eyesight are cataracts and macular degeneration. Macular degeneration can reduce our ability to read, drive, recognize faces or colors and see detail.
The good news is that you can reduce your chances of suffering from macular degeneration by making sure you are getting enough vitamin D. There is even better news: vitamin D is all around us in sunshine, fatty fishes such salmon, egg yolks and fortified dairy products and cereals.
Even though cataract surgery has become so commonplace that we view it as routine, cataracts that have not gotten to the point where you need surgery can still reduce your visual acuity and impact your driving ability.
One thing you can do to minimize your risk for developing cataracts is talking with your doctor about the possible impact any statins you may be taking could be affecting your eyes. Recent research is showing that these drugs, which are game-changers in controlling cholesterol, can also increase cataract risk.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to overlook our hearing, but it is a very important part of safe driving. Imagine not being able to hear sirens or honking horns trying to warn us of something.
To give you an idea of how widespread this problem is, hearing loss is the third most common health problem in the U.S., and more than a third of boomers who have reached 65 have it to some degree.
Various studies confirm that hearing loss and poor nutrition go hand in hand. Diets high in cholesterol, sugar and carbohydrates can affect your hearing. In addition to limiting your intake of these three, you also need to make sure you are getting enough vitamin B12 and folic acid in your diet.
Since free radicals can also impact your hearing, make sure you are getting enough antioxidants such as Omega 3 and vitamin A. You can find these in green leafy vegetables, bananas and beans.
Our Memory and Cognitive Ability
As we get older, it takes us boomers a little longer to tap into our extensive memory banks to find what we are looking for (this accounts for the “I had it on the tip of my tongue” moments we all have). It also may take us a little longer to react to what is going on around us as our reflex times get a little slower.
Both of these issues could impact our driving ability. For example, we may miss an exit that we have used a thousand times or perhaps step on the gas when we meant to step on the brake. It also may be more difficult to divide our attention between the multiple tasks that driving requires.
Sometimes we may need to turn off the radio to help us concentrate or not be as distracted if you are looking for an address or trying to follow the GPS.
You can take some proactive steps to protect your memory and your other nervous system functions by making sure you are getting enough vitamin B12. This vitamin has enormous benefits for your brain function, including your memory. You can get it in foods such as beef, fish and dairy products.
You should also consider liberally using blueberries in your diet (they go great with oatmeal, for example) since research is showing that blueberries may be a superfood for both your brain and your memory. Studies also show that blueberries may improve cognitive and memory skills in older adults.
Take steps to keep your muscles fit and to stay flexible. If you don’t, it eventually will get more challenging to do such things as turn your head to check for traffic, quickly move your foot from the gas pedal to the brake or make a quick turn.
You can address mobility issues by being as physically active as possible and exercising in moderation. Even 15 minutes of walking a day is beneficial. You can also consider taking some yoga or stretching classes. Not only will you be helping your body but you can also make some new friends!
You should also consider having your nutrient levels checked to ensure your vitamin D and vitamin C levels are where they should be. You can also talk with your doctor about natural supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, MSM and SAM-e.
Finally, be sure you are getting enough sleep and talk with your doctor about the medications you are taking to see if any of their side effects could impact your driving ability.
Do you think that older drivers are really more dangerous on the road than our younger counterparts? What are you doing to keep your driving skills sharp? Have you ever had your driving ability evaluated? If so, what were the results and what did you do? What concerns do you have about aging and driving? Tell us about it. Please join the conversation.
Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals – The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores.