Alzheimer's test guides difficult call on driving
WASHINGTON - Scientists are creating tests to show when it is time for people with early Alzheimer's disease to stop driving.
It's one of a family's most wrenching decisions, and as Alzheimer's increasingly is diagnosed in its earliest stages, it can be hard to tell when a loved one is poised to become a danger.
Factor in that much of the country lacks public transportation, and quitting too soon restricts independence for someone who otherwise may function well for several years.
"That's a real cost to the individual and family and society," said Jeffrey Dawson of the University of Iowa. "You have to have some sort of trade-off between the individual's independence along with the safety of the driver and with other people on the road."
Typically, specialists say, patients gradually scale back their driving, avoiding busy freeways or night trips or left-turn intersections. Alzheimer's Association adviser Sue Pinder, 58, recently gave up big-city driving.
Shortly after Pinder's diagnosis in 2004, she signed a form designating her husband to decide when she will quit driving altogether. He gave her a GPS system for her last birthday. It helped Pinder navigate unfamiliar streets when, to be near another daughter, the couple recently moved to West Monroe, La., from a nearby town.
"That's helped a lot where I don't have to worry, I can concentrate on my driving and not the directions," Pinder said.
Working on ways to help similar patients, Dawson's team in Iowa developed an intricate behind-the-wheel exam: A 35-mile drive through rural, residential, and urban streets in a tricked-out Ford Taurus able to record just about every action the driver takes, much like an airplane "black box" does. Lipstick-size video cameras were positioned to show oncoming traffic, too.
Researchers recruited 40 people with early-stage Alzheimer's who still had their driver's licenses to take the road test, and compared how 115 older drivers without dementia handled the same trip.
The results, reported in the journal Neurology, are striking. On average, the Alzheimer's drivers committed 42 safety mistakes, compared with 33 for the other drivers.