Could Studying Driving Help Detect Signs of Dementia Down the Road?

Their goal of a new study is to see which driving changes indicate a cognitive decline

NBCUniversal, Inc.

About one in three adults with dementia continue to be active drivers and 50% of them continue driving for up to three years after their diagnosis. But now a new trial is underway to see whether cognitive changes that may lead to dementia down the road could be detected through driving – years earlier.

Norman and Joyce Dohm like to travel the old-fashioned way.

“He doesn’t like to fly. We just like to see the USA by wheels,” said Joyce.

But this year, Norman will be 80 and he knows he has a greater risk for mild cognitive impairment which can affect his driving.

“When you drive, you have to take into account dozens, if not hundreds of different things happening at once. And that’s hard when your brain isn’t working as well as it used to,” said Dr. Ruth Tappen at Florida Atlantic University's College of Nursing. 

Especially for drivers with dementia. They may have difficulty changing lanes, making left turns, merging, following routes, or even driving at night. But researchers believe that cognitive changes seen during driving may give early insight into dementia before noticeable symptoms can be seen.

“I think of it as a brand- new early warning system,” continued Tappen.

They are partnering with engineers to develop and test an in-vehicle sensing system equipped with onboard diagnostics, GPS, and cameras.

“Driver facing video can have AI that can detect dodginess, distractions, and it can also track eye movement,” explained Dr. Jinwoo Jang an assistant professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Their goal is to see which driving changes indicate a cognitive decline. Norman is taking part in the trial with the in-vehicle sensing system. Even though Norman and his wife feel he is a safe driver now, any changes detected by the system can give them an early warning so Norman can hit the brakes.

“I want to be safe to drive so nobody else will be endangered because of me,” shared Norman.

The trial will follow drivers for three years. Participants in the trial need to be 65 or older with no cognitive impairment, have a driver’s license, a car and car insurance.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer and Editor.

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