Turns out being a bad driver can be a sign of a devastating condition

Many of us don’t include World’s Best Driver on our resumes, but you may want to pay attention if you have noticed your driving skills are deteriorating. It could be a sign of a very serious health condition.

According to a team of researchers at Columbia University, The Mailman School of Public Health, and Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, certain driving behaviors can be a predictor of dementia.

How driving is linked to dementia

The new paper found that certain driving behaviors are closely linked to cognitive decline among older populations. After employing algorithms designed to gauge driving exposure, space, and performance, the authors were able to anticipate neurodegenerative incidence with an 88% accuracy rate.

The new study was published in the journal Geriatrics and the research spanned August 2015 through March 2019.

“Driving is a complex task involving dynamic cognitive processes and requiring essential cognitive functions and perceptual-motor skills. Our study indicates that naturalistic driving behaviors can be used as comprehensive and reliable markers for mild cognitive impairment and dementia,” said Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and senior author. “If validated, the algorithms developed in this study could provide a novel, unobtrusive screening tool for early detection and management of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older drivers.”

How the researchers linked driving to dementia

The authors began their study by developing 29 variables using driving data captured by in-vehicle recording devices. They subsequently recruited 2,977 participants who were previously logged in the Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project.

Participants were active drivers between the ages of 65 and 79 years old. None evidenced severe cognitive impairment or any other degenerative medical conditions at baseline. Monthly driving data captured by in-vehicle recording devices for up to 45 months.

 Thirty-three participants were newly diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and 31 were diagnosed with dementia by the end of the study period in April.

The models utilized by the researchers indicated age to be the most predictive of mild cognitive impairment and dementia, followed by the percentage of trips traveled within 15 miles of home, race/ethnicity, length of trips starting and ending at home, and the number of hard braking events with a deceleration rate.

These diagnostic models proved to be more reliable than models based on demographic characteristics (29 percent) and driving variables (66 percent) alone.

“Based on variables derived from the naturalistic driving data and basic demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, and education level, we could predict mild cognitive impairment and dementia with 88 percent accuracy, “explained Sharon Di, associate professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics at Columbia Engineering and the study’s lead author.

“If validated, the algorithms developed in this study could provide a novel tool for the early detection and management of MCI and dementia in older drivers.”

It should be noted that this is separate from another recent study that found that deteriorating vision, a common issue for many, can also indicate early development of dementia. Researchers report older adults dealing with vision loss are significantly more likely to experience at least mild cognitive impairment as well.