Looking for facts as aging population drives into the sunset

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AURORA | Anybody whose covered a mile or two on an American road knows the old trope about old folks behind the wheel.

And maybe you’ve seen a few anecdotal examples that seem to prove elderly drivers are dangerous — a Buick with its blinker on for miles, or maybe a big Oldsmobile taking up a few feet of the lane next to it.

But how much do we really know about how aging effects someone’s ability to drive?

A sprawling, $12 million, five-year study at the Anschutz Medical Campus and four other sites around the country is aiming to shed some light on that question. In all, the LongROAD study is tracking more than 3,000 seniors, including 600 at Anschutz, with an eye toward determining how a host of factors — physical and behavioral health as well as medications and the condition of their cars — influence seniors behind the wheel.

LongROAD, which stands for Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers, is being funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and conducted locally by researchers from UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital Emergency Department and the Colorado School of Public Health, both of which operate at Anschutz.

Dr. Carolyn DiGuiseppi, professor in the Colorado School of Public Health and the co-lead for the CU LongROAD site, said the study is particularly important because society is getting older, which means more older drivers on the road.

“We are an aging society and safe mobility is really vital to healthy aging,” she said.

The goal of the study is not to take the keys from elderly drivers, she said. Over the past two years that the study has been going, none of the 600 drivers at Anschutz have given up their license, she said, though some have scaled back how regularly they drive.

Instead, she said the goal is to determine how aging effects driving ability so more older people can maintain their ability to drive — a crucial part of independent living.

“Being independent in the community requires independent mobility and driving provides a lot of social and health benefits,” she said.

When the study wraps in a couple years, DiGuiseppi said she hopes the data can help people when they go to make interventions with loved ones who they think shouldn’t drive.

Also, while the goal is not to take the keys from anyone, DiGuiseppi said some participants likely will opt not to drive in the coming years. That will also provide important data, she said, because researchers will learn how not being able to drive might effect seniors.

One of the participants, 75-year-old Dick Randolph of Aurora, said that by participating in the study, he is paying more attention to his driving habits.

“The process I have gone through with them has definitely contributed to me being more alert as a driver,” he said. “I think I’m a better driver today than I was three years ago.”

And while the ability to drive remains important to him, Randolph said he finds himself opting not to drive more these days.

The retired telecom worker said he recently relied on a ride-sharing service when he was battling the flu because he thought it was safer.

“Then I don’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel of the car if I’m not feeling super,” he said.