When older adults stop driving due to age-related mental and physical limitations, they face nearly double the risk of depression as well as further decline in cognitive and physical health, according to a new study at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. They also experienced a 51 percent reduction in their social life.
The findings are published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
While 81 percent of the 29.5 million U.S. adults aged 65 and over continue to hold a license and get behind the wheel, age-related declines in mental and physical abilities make driving more difficult, and many seniors reduce or eventually quit driving altogether.
Giving up the option to drive is an extremely difficult decision, however, as driving is an important aspect of maintaining control over one’s life.
“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,” said senior author Guohua Li, M.D., Dr.P.H., Mailman School professor of epidemiology, the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia.
“Unfortunately, it is almost inevitable to face the decision to stop driving during the process of aging as cognitive and physical functions continue to decline.”
The researchers analyzed health-related data for drivers aged 55 and older from 16 different studies and compared these results with data from current drivers. The researchers updated and expanded on earlier findings with more than 10 additional years of empirical research.
The findings show that older adults experienced faster declines in cognitive function and physical health after they stopped driving. Driving cessation was also tied to a 51 percent reduction in the size of social networks of friends and relatives, something the researchers say can limit the social lives of seniors and their ability to interact with others. Declines in social health after quitting driving appeared greater in women than in men.
Older adults who had quit driving were also nearly five times as likely as those currently driving to be admitted to a nursing home, assisted living community, or retirement home, after adjusting for marital status or co-residence.
“As older ex-drivers begin substituting outside activities with indoor activities around the home, these activities may not be as beneficial to physical functioning as working or volunteering on the outside,” said Thelma Mielenz, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School and co-author.
“When time comes to stop driving, it is important to make personalized plans to maintain mobility and social functions.”
However, the researchers still assert that simply making alternative transportation available to older adults does not necessarily offset the adverse health effects of driving cessation.
“What we need most of all are effective programs that can ensure and prolong an older adult’s mobility, physical, and social functioning,” said Li.