Stopping Driving Can Double the Risk of Depression for Older Adults

Driving may become more difficult as people age, but stopping driving can double the their risk of depression.

That’s the finding of a study published recently in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Researchers at Columbia University examined the health and well-being of older adults after they stopped driving and found that their health worsened in a variety of ways.

In particular, driving cessation nearly doubled the risk of depressive symptoms, while also contributing to diminished cognitive abilities and physical functioning.

“For many older adults, driving is more than a privilege; it is instrumental to their daily living and is a strong indicator of self-control, personal freedom, and independence,” said study author Dr. Guohua Li, director of Columbia’s Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention.

“Unfortunately, it is almost inevitable to face the decision to stop driving during the process of aging as cognitive and physical functions continue to decline.”

Dr. Li and his team analyzed health-related data for drivers aged 55 and older from 16 studies. that met eligibility criteria and compared results with data from current drivers.

The study showed that older adults experienced faster declines in cognitive function and physical health after stopping driving.

Driving cessation was also associated with a 51 per cent reduction in the size of social networks of friends and relatives–something the researchers say can constrain the social lives of seniors and their ability to engage with others. Decline in social health after driving cessation appeared greater in women than in men.

Former drivers were also nearly five times as likely as current drivers to be admitted to a nursing home, assisted living community, or retirement home, after adjusting for marital status or co-residence.

“As older ex-drivers begin substituting outside activities with indoor activities around the home, these activities may not be as beneficial to physical functioning as working or volunteering on the outside,” said co-author Thelma Mielenz.

“When time comes to stop driving, it is important to make personalized plans to maintain mobility and social functions.”

The researchers note that merely making alternative transportation available to older adults does not necessarily offset the adverse health effects of driving cessation.

“What we need most of all are effective programs that can ensure and prolong an older adult’s mobility, physical, and social functioning,” said Dr. Li.