Fitness to Drive: How to Recognize Dementia

Fitness to Drive: How to Recognize Dementia

Recognizing dementia

Are you, or is a loved one, having more difficulty finding the right words in conversation? Getting lost while driving familiar routes? Becoming easily agitated?

Have tasks that used to be simple – like cooking a meal or dressing for work – become increasingly difficult and overwhelming?

These signs could be pointing to stress, aging, or something more serious. Like dementia.

Early dementia signs and symptoms

The symptom most commonly associated with dementia is memory loss. But, early signs can include much more than just a fuzzy memory.

Dementia isn’t one specific disease, but a term used to describe a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in cognitive function that, over time, will limit a person’s ability to perform simple, every day tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases.

Symptoms of dementia can range from memory problems to impaired visual perception. But many people have memory loss issues completely unrelated to Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. Symptoms that are caused by depression, medication side effects, excessive use of alcohol, thyroid problems, and even vitamin deficiencies can improve with early treatment.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person must display a significant impairment of two or more of the following symptoms for the disease to be considered a dementia:

  • Memory.
  • Communication and language.
  • Ability to focus and pay attention.
  • Reasoning and judgment.
  • Visual perception.

Activities for daily living and dementia

The progressive nature of many dementias causes significant challenges in a patient’s daily routine.

In the early stages, patients may need to make special accommodations, such as installing a GPS system in a car to assist with navigation, or finding assistance with household chores like cooking or meal preparation.

Early diagnosis is critical for care and also provides the ability to plan for what the future of the disease may hold.

One key concern for dementia patients and caregivers is when independent driving becomes unsafe. Driving is a vital component of independence making the need to cease driving difficult to accept for many patients.

Conversations with loved ones can be uncomfortable.

With safety the number one concern, virtual driving simulators can play a key role in providing a subjective overview of a patient’s fitness to drive as the disease progresses. Driving simulators can be used to help:

  • Determine a baseline of driving fitness.
  • Practice skills to maintain driving for longer periods.
  • Provide concrete evidence for when a patient is no longer able to safely operate a vehicle.

Driving is a complex function with physical, cognitive and perceptual demands. Drivers must be able to:

  • Maintain focus.
  • Respond to unexpected events.
  • Appropriately judge their position to the road, other vehicles, and obstacles.
  • Safely navigate in urban and rural areas.

Dementia can wreak havoc on these faculties over time. The progressive nature of the disease can also make changes in driving fitness or diminishing fitness difficult to identify before drivers become a danger to themselves or others.

When to seek help

Don’t ignore troubling signs or symptoms. In many cases early intervention can make managing symptoms easier and can slow the long-term progression of the disease.

Although there is no single test to identify dementia in patients, physicians can diagnose the disease with a high degree of certainty by reviewing medical history, a physical exam, lab tests, and changes in thinking, day-to-day function, and behavior consistent with dementias.

Virtual driving simulators can be very helpful in such an assessment, especially in identifying functional deficits that would put a patient at increased risk behind the wheel. One of the main benefits of a virtual driving simulator is that these tests and practice simulations are conducted in a safe and controlled environment utilizing software that can detect subtle changes over time.

If you, a loved one, or a patient is concerned about the effects of a dementia diagnosis on driving ability, contact a DriveSafety certified technician today to discuss options for virtual driving simulation in managing, improving, and analyzing driving fitness.