Memory loss can be a daunting diagnosis that affects every ability of your life, including your ability to drive. Delayed reactions, a lack of concentration, impaired judgment, or sudden confusion can be difficult to deal with in general, and behind the wheel, they can be a dangerous combination.
In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of memory loss, touch on how they affect your driving ability, and discuss some possible avenues of action.
Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Other Forms Memory Loss
Memory loss can be grouped into three main categories: dementia from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, age-associated memory loss, and medically-related memory loss.
Dementia | Alzheimer’s and Other Forms
Dementia broadly describes any degenerative brain condition that results in cognitive impairment or memory loss.
Most common among these is Alzheimer’s disease (responsible for between 60% and 80% of all dementia cases), followed by vascular dementia (responsible for the vast majority of remaining cases), followed by other rare cases of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is caused by clumps of damaged proteins in the brain and typically manifests after the age of 60 with a gradual onset and often slow but continuous progression.
Victims of Alzheimer’s typically start with more mild symptoms like slight memory loss and trouble learning new information. However, these symptoms can eventually progress to lost language skills and reasoning, inability to recognize family members, and even hallucinations, paranoia, and the loss of basic function.
Vascular dementia is often the result of a stroke or hardened arteries and can have a much more sudden onset, though the symptoms can be just as far-reaching and widespread as those from Alzheimer’s.
Other forms of dementia are much rarer but can come with their own additional complications on top of neurological challenges (like Parkinson’s dementia). It’s also not uncommon for individuals to have more than one type of dementia at a time.
Age-Associated Memory Loss
Nearly 40% of senior citizens will experience some form of age-associated memory impairment in their life, and around two-thirds of these cases are non-dementia related.
Instead, they simply result from the slow, gradual aging of your brain cells, along with weakened blood flow and hormonal balance.
These cases are often milder, and less debilitating than the effects of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. However, even these milder symptoms like forgetfulness, brief confusion, or difficulty making sudden decisions can make driving challenging.
Medically-Related Memory Loss
Many forms of illness and injury can result in some form of memory loss, but in these cases, action can often be taken to restore some or all of your memory function.
When these conditions occur as a result of chronic conditions — like hypothyroidism, a deficiency of key nutrients like vitamin B-12 or D-3, stress or anxiety, or specific medications — it can often simply be a case of correcting your lifestyle and diet to combat these conditions.
In more acute cases — like with severe emotional trauma, excessive alcohol or drug use, or brain trauma — regaining full memory can take a more involved medical invention.
For either form of medically-related memory loss, we heavily recommend working with your doctor to develop a plan of treatment and understand your condition fully before considering a return to the road.
How Can Alzheimer’s and Memory Loss Affect My Ability to Drive?
Regardless of the source of memory loss, your ability to drive can be affected. Apart from the wide range of other risks of memory loss (like incorrectly taking medications or other health complications), your skill and safety behind the wheel change in a number of different ways.
In milder cases of driving with memory loss, brief confusion over routes, locations, or directions can add a distracting level of uncertainty on the road and raise your risk behind the wheel.
In more advanced cases of memory loss, you may start to struggle with the coordination, concentration, and physical aspects of driving. It may become more difficult to make quick judgment calls to respond to traffic and road conditions, and it’s even possible to forget the basic functions of your vehicle.
The progressive nature of many of these conditions, particularly Alzheimer’s, means that you should check up on your mental condition relatively frequently, especially if you’re still behind the wheel. In this way, you can catch any possible risks of driving with dementia before they become dangerous on the road.
What Can I Do at Home to Improve My Ability to Drive with Alzheimer’s, Dementia, or Memory Loss?
Studies have shown that brain-training activities that focus on puzzles, memory, reasoning, pattern recognition, and information processing can all help with memory loss. Daily habits like playing a musical instrument, speaking a second language, or even doing crosswords and sudoku can also help.
Maintaining your health is also important. Minimizing stress, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and eating a diet high in whole foods, and key nutrients can go a long way towards improving your memory. We also recommend talking with your doctor about any supplements or vitamins.
And before you head out on the road, take some extra time to familiarize yourself with the roads and route. This confidence and familiarity can be a difference-maker, especially with milder forms of memory loss.
How Do I Know When It’s Time to Stop Driving?
The answer to this question depends on what type of memory loss you have, its severity, and whether or not it’s progressing.
In cases of reversible memory loss, the way forward may simply be to take a break from driving. With mild age-associated memory loss, it may be safe to drive with a few restrictions — like close to home or on familiar roads. Or, with more severe cases, it may be unsafe to return to the road.
If you have a family member with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, it may be difficult to discuss their retirement from driving. This is true both due to their condition as well as the fact that retiring from driving can feel like a major loss of independence.
In our area, if your loved one refuses to retire from driving, you or their physician can file an anonymous report with the Connecticut DMV. This report will lead to the suspension of their license until they can show the ability to drive safely again.
However, for the best plan of action, we recommend speaking to your loved one about driving as soon as possible if they’ve been diagnosed with dementia and working with a Certified Driver Rehabilitation Specialist.
That way, you can put together a plan to help keep them as independent, mobile, and safe as possible.
What Does Next Street Look for When Assessing a Person with Dementia, Alzheimer’s, or Memory Loss?
Our driving rehab specialists work with you or your loved ones directly to determine their cognitive functions, reaction time, as well as visual and physical health.
Based on this comprehensive assessment (and possibly a behind-the-wheel driving evaluation), our CDRSs will be able to clear your loved one to continue to drive or help them make the transition into retirement from behind the wheel.
Possible Driving Outcomes
If you have only mild cognitive impairments, like brief forgetfulness, it may be possible to resume driving as normal. However, in the case of a progressive medical condition like Alzheimer’s we recommend regular check-ins, even if you’re still in the early stages.
Driving with Restrictions
Sometimes, memory loss patients may still be able to drive, but with certain limitations, like only driving during the day or in familiar locations. Our driver rehab team can also recommend occupational therapy, training, or driver education to help them overcome smaller challenges.
Retirement from Driving
In more severe instances of memory loss, like later stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, it may no longer be safe to operate a motor vehicle.
In these cases, our driver rehabilitation specialists can help you develop an alternative transportation plan that’s tailored to their specific challenges. This can include making use of rides from loved ones (families, caregivers, etc.) as well as ride services or other considerations (like drivers or vehicle attendants).
Taking the Next Step
Facing the challenges of memory loss, especially Alzheimer’s and dementia, can be a challenge, and we’re here to help. Our goal is to help you or your loved ones stay as independent, mobile, and safe as possible so you can move forward with confidence.
If you’re concerned that you might need to reconsider your or your loved one’s status on the road, or are having trouble convincing a loved one to stop driving, you can reach out to us and schedule a free consultation.