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It is well documented that people’s driving behavior changes as they age. Family members report elderly relatives driving more erratically, muddling the accelerator with the brake pedal, or traveling at very low speeds.
But how do you know if these changes are a natural part of aging, or something more serious like preclinical Alzheimer’s? A recent study tracked the driving habits of Missouri seniors to see if they could spot the difference, and the results suggest they can.
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Background to the innovative study
As reported by the BBC, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, funded by the National Institute on Aging, set out to find if driving habits could reveal early signs of Alzheimer's.
The researchers were hoping to be able to diagnose the disease without the need for invasive medical procedures, and also improve road safety.
The researchers found a group of 139 drivers in Missouri, all over the age of 65, who were willing to have their driving tracked for 12 months.
The group was split into two groups, with around half of them already showing very early signs of Alzheimer's following medical tests. The other half had no discernable health issues.
Each participant had their car fitted with a GPS tracking device, and after a year, the researchers found clear and detectable differences between the two groups’ driving habits.
How can driving reveal clues about Alzheimer’s disease?
The GPS trackers logged each driver’s movements over the course of a year..
Drivers with preclinical Alzheimer’s drove more slowly and made abrupt changes more often. They tended to travel less at night and drove less overall. These drivers also drove to fewer places, sticking to well-known routes.
After analyzing the results, researchers were able to design a model that could predict the likelihood of someone having preclinical Alzheimer’s using just their age and GPS data. When cross-referenced with the medical diagnoses of the participants, the model was shown to be 86% accurate.
Sayeh Bayat, a PhD candidate who led the study summed up the results: "Using these very few indicators… you can really, with very high confidence, identify whether a person has preclinical Alzheimer's disease or not."
What does this study mean for Alzheimer’s patients?
As explained in the BBC article, Alzheimer’s can start in the brain 20 years before any symptoms appear. Medical tests used to detect preclinical signs can be costly and invasive, and there are not many drugs available to treat it.
Having an early indication of who may be likely to develop the condition will help patients seek treatment sooner, and doctors will be better informed on when to prescribe drugs.
The study out of Missouri only monitored 139 people, and larger studies are needed to prove the link between driving habits and early Alzheimer’s. Data gathering systems cannot predict future health problems with 100% accuracy, and some people will worry about their data being shared in this way.
But many of us are already willing to use GPS or telematics devices to monitor our driving, in exchange for lower insurance rates. If these devices can accurately predict future health issues, it could help thousands of Americans get treatment sooner.
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