When older adults stop driving, it may impact health and well-being

Driving a car is a key factor in independent living and life satisfaction for older adults. In the U.S., driving is considered an important aspect of personal freedom and gives people a sense of control over their lives. Most adults continue to drive as they age–in fact, 81 percent of people aged 65 and older hold a driver’s license in this country. However, age-related declines in physical and cognitive functions make driving more difficult for older adults, and many people eventually reduce or stop driving altogether.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers reviewed 16 studies that examined the health and well-being of older adults after they stopped driving. The researchers concluded that, when older adults stop driving, their health is impacted in a variety of ways. In particular, not being able to drive nearly doubles the risk of developing symptoms of depression. The team also noted that stopping driving (also known as “driver cessation”) may lead to faster declines in physical and mental health function and increased risk of death.

Several factors are likely responsible for these findings, noted the researchers. Among them: Ex-drivers have fewer out-of-home activities, and as a result may have fewer opportunities for social interaction. “For many older adults, driving is more than a privilege. It is instrumental to their daily living and is a strong indicator of self-control, personal freedom, and independence. It is almost inevitable to face the decision to stop driving during the aging process as cognitive and physical functions decline. When decision time comes, it is important to take into consideration the potential for adverse health consequences of driving cessation and to make personalized plans to maintain mobility and social activities,” said Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, the senior author of the study, who is a professor of epidemiology and the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University.

However, Dr. Li notes, simply making alternative transportation available to older adults does not necessarily offset the adverse health effects of driving cessation. Effective programs that can ensure and prolong an older adult’s mobility, as well as physical and social functioning, are needed, Dr. Li suggests.

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