The early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, could be detected in a person’s driving, according to a study at Washington University in St. Louis. While it’s natural for everyone’s driving to change as they age, some subtle differences can be indicative of the condition. The experiment led by Catherine Roe and Ganesh Babulal, and funded by the National Institute on Aging, wanted to find out whether these driving differences can be detected using Global Positioning System-based (GPS) location-tracking devices.
A group of over-65s in Missouri in the US agreed to have their driving closely monitored for one year.
The DRIVES study, as it was named, also sought to find out whether studying the driving habits of this group alone could reveal the start of the disease without the need for expensive medical procedures.
After 365 days, the researchers were confident that it could.
Of the 139 people involved in the study, medical tests had already shown around half of them had very early or ‘preclinical’ Alzheimer’s disease. The other half did not.
And an analysis of their driving showed detectable differences between the two groups.
Those with preclinical Alzheimer’s tended to drive more slowly, make abrupt changes, travel less at night and logged fewer miles overall.
They also visited a smaller variety of destinations when driving, sticking to slightly more confined routes.
Sayeh Bayat, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, who also led the study, said: “How people move within their daily environments, ranging from the places they visit to how they drive, can tell us a lot about their health.”
The GPS trackers fitted to the participants’ cars revealed these movements, also when they occurred, in detail.,
Participants had previously been split into those with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease and those without using medical tests such as spinal fluid tests and positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
Using the results of the driving data, they were able to design a model that could forecast someone’s likelihood of having preclinical Alzheimer’s using their age and their GPS driving data.
This method proved to be 86 percent accurate.
Ms Bayat added: “Using these very few indicators… you can really, with very high confidence, identify whether a person has preclinical Alzheimer’s disease or not.”
The model was more accurate still (90 percent) when it also added in the results of a genetic test for Alzheimer’s known as apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotyping that indicates whether you may have an inherited risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
But the prediction based on age and driving alone was almost as precise.
It should be noted larger, randomised studies are needed to show a definitive link between the detected driving behaviours and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.
But people’s driving behaviour changing when they have Alzheimer’s is well documented.
The NHS says in the early stages, the main symptom of Alzheimer’s is memory lapses.
Someone with early Alzheimer’s may:
- forget about recent conversations or events
- misplace items
- forget the names of places and objects
- have trouble thinking of the right word
- ask questions repetitively
- show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
- become less flexible and more hesitant to try new things
There are also often signs of mood changes, such as increasing anxiety or agitation, or periods of confusion.
If you’re worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, it’s a good idea to see a GP.