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Brain training may slow declines in driving skills of the elderly

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Scientists are trying to find ways to train the brains of elderly motorists to delay the adverse effects of aging on driving skills.

Can elderly drivers exercise their brains to prevent or delay age-related declines? Studies show that they can. Now, scientists want to figure out how to apply that knowledge to driving to help retirees preserve driving skills in their golden years.

Demographers tell us that we will soon be swamped by a “silver tsunami,” as baby boomers pass into retirement. The implications of this are culturewide, but drivers will see the effects as they encounter more older drivers on the road.

“Society is aging around the world, so there is going to be a greater proportion of aging drivers on the road,” said Jon Antin, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Drivers over the age of 65 perceive 30 percent less information from a glance at a scene than do younger drivers, on average, Antin said. And as age increases, perception decreases even more.

Antin is conducting a research project aimed at providing a group of older drivers with brain-training tools that should expand their field of view and increase their speed of mental processing to make them safer, more aware and more responsive drivers.

Then, by putting these drivers on the road in a car outfitted with sensors and cameras, he aims to identify and verify the driving safety benefits. Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, has already demonstrated in her research that brain training does reduce the incidence of crashes among older drivers.

Now, Antin said, he wants to figure out how that happens and what kind of training is most effective. A third of the test subjects will use computerized brain training drills, one third will have activities they do in a specially equipped car and the other group will get no training as the control group. Antin will test them immediately after they conclude the brain training and then again six months later and again a year later to gauge their ability to preserve gains.