Older drivers can see their driving abilities improve by participating in certain types of training that improves the brain's processing speed and how the mind reacts when attention is divided, according to a new study by a researcher from the University of South Florida and colleagues from several other universities.
The research team designed a study to assess the effects of cognitive "speed of processing" training (SPT) among older adult drivers and determined that training not only improved mental quickness and attention, but also had the potential to help prevent declines in a range of driving skills (driving mobility) among older drivers.
Although vision issues, physical limitations and other health problems are associated with driving limitations, cognitive performance may be the strongest indicator of potential declining skills.
"One of the most important predictors of driving mobility is cognitive speed of processing - how quickly people can process information and act on it," said study co-author Jerri Edwards, associate professor in USF's School of Aging Studies in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. "For those older adults who had experienced some slowing in their ability to process information, more training sessions increased their driving frequency among other behaviors related to maintained driving mobility."
The researchers said the training used is a computerized, adaptive cognitive intervention designed to increase the speed at which participants can accurately decipher increasingly complex information. The exercises are targeted at enhancing the brain's processing speed and improving divided attention. The tasks required combinations of visual and auditory target identification, discrimination and localization. The study included both participants in training activities and controls who either completed a training program that targeted memory, or did not get any training. The average age of participants in the study was 73 years old.
Data collected and analyzed by the researchers included measures of driving mobility, such as frequency of driving (number of days driven in a week), driving exposure (variable driving maneuvers and conditions) and driving space (how far from home participants drove in a given week) over five years. Baseline data was collected on their driving frequency, exposure and space. Those receiving training completed up to 18 training sessions over a three-year period.
"Our results show that greater amounts of SPT - larger 'doses' - prolonged some measures of driving mobility for at-risk older adults with poor baseline processing speed," explained Edwards. "Given the importance of driving for older adult well-being and independence, these findings are noteworthy." Driving frequency was the "most robust" outcome, meaning that SPT enabled participants to drive more often in a given week.
"Ours is the first study to show that SPT can improve driving mobility across a five-year period," said Edwards. "It also highlighted the importance of 'dosage,' the number of training sessions received. Further research should look at the exact amount of training needed to maintain driving mobility among older adults who are at-risk for driving cessation or reduced driving mobility."
The researchers recently published the results of their work in the Gerontological Society of America's Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.