Overview of the Relationship Between Driving and Memory Loss

A truly tough moment in a person’s life is when the time comes to consider stopping driving. There are times when a senior make what really is a monumental decision on his or her own. However, in many instances, a family member or family members need to get involved in the process of getting a senior to stop driving. Because the prospect of stopping driving later in life or interceding to get a family member to give up driving is something nearly all of us will face at some point, understanding the relationship between driving and memory loss is important.

We all must keep in mind that driving is a complicated and dangerous activity. In 2021 alone, almost 43,000 people in the United States died in car accidents.

Driving Requires Multiple Brain Systems Working Together

If you are like most people (nearly everyone, actually), you likely have never given much thought to the mental mechanics of driving a car. You very well may have felt that operating a car is just something that happens. Once you get behind the wheel, it’s something that becomes ingrained behavior.

The reality is that driving a motor vehicle requires multiple brain systems to work in a coordinated and reliable manner, according to Harvard Medical School.

One of these brain systems involved in driving a car is the visual-object system. This is located in your occipital and temporal lobes. This system processes the images coming in from your eyes to enable you to distinguish cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and other things you encounter when motoring.

The visual-spatial system, located in your occipital and parietal lobes, is another brain system that is engaged when driving. This brain system determines where cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and other objects are located on or near the road and how fast they are moving. This brain system also anticipates where they will be in a few seconds.

The attention system is located in your parietal lobes, and the auditory system is in your superior temporal lobe. This pair of systems keeps you alert to car horns and other signs of danger as you drive a car.

Another key brain system involved in driving is that associated with decision-making. The decision-making system is located in your frontal lobes. This system uses visual, auditory, spatial, and motion information to determine how fast you should be going and whether you need to turn.

The motor system of your brain is located in your frontal lobes. This brain system is responsible for translating decisions into how hard your foot is pressing the pedals and whether your hands are turning the steering wheel.

Driving Combines Both Conscious and Unconscious Brain Activity

In addition to engaging different brain systems, driving also combines both conscious and unconscious brain activity. As mentioned earlier, driving a car oftentimes seems like something that just happens. There actually is some truth to that comment.

Scientists have concluded that once you learn to drive, once you develop basic driving skills, driving care really does become automatic and largely a function of unconscious brain activity. Your conscious mind does take over when something warrants this type of intervention. For example, if weather conditions are inclement, your conscious mind will take over. Your conscious mind directs your full (or nearly full) attention to the task at hand, driving a car.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Driving

Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other types of dementia, impacts all four lobes of the human brain. As a result, people with Alzheimer’s disease oftentimes experience multiple impairments that include:

  • Impaired decision-making
  • Attention deficits
  • Visual impairment
  • Auditory impairment
  • Cognitive impairment

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and being in the early stage of the disease does not mandate an end to driving. If a person is diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, the condition will not immediately impair his or her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. In fact, Harvard Medical School reports:

People with Alzheimer’s had an average of 0.09 car crashes per year, compared to 0.04 crashes in age-matched healthy adults. Another study found that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in the mild cognitive impairment and very mild dementia stages had impairments similar to 16-to 20-year-old drivers. So, on the one hand, people with Alzheimer’s are at increased risk for driving. On the other hand, when Alzheimer’s is very mild, accident rates are like those of new drivers – a group who we as a society allow to drive with few or no restrictions.

Clinical Guidelines Regarding Continued Driving

The American Academy of Neurology has published a set of guidelines to help clinicians determine whether an individual with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia should stop driving. The guidelines suggest that clinicians consider these factors in evaluating whether a person with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia should continue to drive:

  • Do caregivers or family members report marginal or unsafe driving skills?
  • Is there a history of citations?
  • Is there a history of crashes?
  • Are they driving under 60 miles per week?
  • Do they avoid driving in certain situations?
  • Do they show aggression or impulsivity in their driving?
  • Is their cognition impaired on standard testing?
  • Is there evidence of other factors that can impair their driving, such as alcohol use, medications that cause cognitive impairment, sleep disorders, visual impairment, or motor impairment?

Final Note

If you have been diagnosed with a memory disorder of some type, consider a plan in which you ask a trusted family member or friend to ride with you in the car each month. If your family member or friend is comfortable riding in a car that you drive, that typically means you are safe to be driving.

You also need to schedule regular consultations with your doctor if you have a memory disorder diagnosis. Your doctor can also assist you with tracking the progress of Alzheimer’s or some other dementia for which you have been diagnosed. By taking these types of steps, you keep other people on the road and yourself safe.