Driving cessation nearly doubled the risk of depressive symptoms, while also contributing to diminished cognitive abilities and physical functioning for older adults, according to a new study.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City examined the health and well-being of older adults after they stopped driving. Findings, which showed their health worsened in several ways, were published Jan. 19 on the website of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
For older adults, driving a car is an important aspect of having control over one’s life. While 81% of the 29.5 million U.S. adults ages 65 and older continue to hold a license and get behind the wheel, age-related declines in cognition and physical function make driving more difficult, and many seniors reduce or eventually stop driving altogether.
“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,” study senior author Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at Mailman, said in a news release. “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.”
Li, founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, and a team of researchers reviewed and analyzed quantitative health-related data for drivers ages 55 and older from 16 studies that met eligibility criteria. They then compared results with data from current drivers. The study updates and builds on earlier findings with more than 10 additional years of empirical research.
Data showed older adults experienced faster declines in cognitive function and physical health after stopping driving. Driving cessation also was associated with a 51% reduction in the size of social networks of friends and relatives — something the researchers claim can constrain the social lives of seniors and their ability to engage with others. Decline in social health after driving cessation appeared greater in women than in men, according to the study.
Researchers also found former drivers were nearly five times as likely as current drivers 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,” co-author Thelma Mielenz, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Mailman, said in the release. “When time comes to stop driving, it is important to make personalized plans to maintain mobility and social functions.”
The researchers point out merely 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,” Li said in the release.
Other study co-authors are Stanford Chihuri, MPH, and Charles J. DiMaggio, PhD, of the Mailman School of Public Health; Marian E. Betz, MD, MPH, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Aurora; Carolyn DiGuiseppi, MD, PhD, Colorado School of Public Health, Aurora; and Vanya C. Jones, PhD, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore.