Studies–and life experience– have shown that as we age our memory and mental clarity are not as sharp as they once were. Neuroscientists have shown that if we exercise the brain as we do our muscles, we can significantly improve our basic cognitive functions. Now scientists are seeing how to use this knowledge to help older people preserve their driving skills.
This is important for a number of reasons. As baby boomers pass into retirement there are more and more older drivers on the road, and more accidents related to these drivers making simple, innocent mistakes.
Jon Antin, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, notes that on average, drivers over the age of 65 perceive 30 percent less information from a glance at a scene than do younger drivers. As age increases, perception decreases even more.
However, there is an enormous sense of independence that comes with being able to drive a car. This feeling is likely born when we’re just learning to drive at ages 16 and 17, suddenly free from our parents’ constant monitoring. And because seniors seldom consider themselves “old people,” they’re not likely to give up driving until it becomes absolutely necessary.
So what’s the solution?
Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, conducted a study that showed how brain training can reduce the incidence of crashes among older drivers. Now Antin is hoping to verify that information and learn what kind of training works best.
Antin’s project will provide older drivers with brain-training tools, then place them on the road in a car outfitted with sensors and cameras. This will hopefully identify and verify the driving safety benefits. A third of the test subjects will use computerized brain training drills, another third will train using a specially equipped car, and the remaining third will get no brain training at all. Antin will test the participants immediately after their initial brain training, six months later, and then a year later to see if the training had long, short, or no impact at all.