Everyone’s driving style changes as they age.
But in some people subtle differences arise in the way of controlling a vehicle, which, according to scientists, they are related to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
In an experiment to find out whether these differences in driving can be detected by tracking devices based on the Global Positioning System (GPS), a group of people over 65 years Washington State agreed to have his driving monitored for a year.
What the researchers wanted to find out was whether simply studying the driving habits of this group could reveal the onset of the disease, without the need for invasive or expensive medical procedures.
After 365 days accumulating the information, they are sure that yes you could.
Among the 139 people who took part in the study, medical tests had already shown that about half had very early or “preclinical” Alzheimer’s disease. The other half did not.
Analysis of their driving revealed detectable differences between the two groups.
Specifically, those who had tolzhandpreclinical imer tended to drive slower, to make abrupt changes, to travel less at night and to register fewer kilometers in general, for example. They also visited a lesser variety of destinations when driving, sticking to slightly more limited routes.
In the case of Alzheimer’s, an early diagnosis is essential. (Photo: Getty Images)
“The way people move in their everyday environment, from the places they visit to the way they driveIt can tell us a lot about your health, ”says Sayeh Bayat, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, who led the study.
The GPS trackers installed in the participants’ cars revealed these movements and when they occurred in detail.
The researchers who conducted the study had previously divided their participants into those with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease and those without, using medical tests such as cerebrospinal fluid analysis and positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
But using the results of the driving data, they were able to design a model that could predict the probability that someone had preclinical Alzheimer’s simply using their age and their GPS driving data. Accuracy was 86%.
“Using these few indicators … you can really, with very high confidence, identify whether a person has preclinical Alzheimer’s disease or not,” says Bayat.
The model was even more accurate (90%) when the results of a genetic test for Alzheimer’s known as the apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotype were added, which indicates whether you may have an inherited risk of the disease.
(Although it must be taken into account that this group is a small minority of people who develop Alzheimer’s).
But the prediction based solely on age and driving was almost as accurate.
Researcher Sayeh Bayat used GPS devices to measure the driving style of patients with incipient disease. (Photo: Roe Lab)
A low cost prediction
Larger randomized studies are needed to demonstrate a definitive relationship between detected driving behaviors and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.
However, the possible differential fact is that this research could suppose a cheap way to detect this condition at an early stage and potentially support treatment.
But it also raises the question of whether older people would want their behavior to be followed so closely, even if there were health benefits.
The fact that drivers’ behavior changes when they have Alzheimer’s is well documented.
The US National Institute on Aging maintains that Family members may notice that their loved one takes longer to complete an easy trip, which drives more erratically or gets confused from the pedal, for example.
(Photo: Getty Images)
However, subtler changes, such as slower driving, are difficult to detect early on. This distinction, Bayat says, requires the collection of data over time for detailed analysis.
He adds that study participants with preclinical Alzheimer’s, in some cases, drove less at night, restricted their driving to slightly smaller areas around their home or traveling slower than expected.
The best way to predict, through driving data, whether someone without preclinical Alzheimer’s may be at risk for developing it might be to monitor their driving on the road for a longer period of time.
This could reveal changes in his driving, says Bayat.
Laura Phipps, from the Alzheimer’s Research Center in the UK, says the study is “really interesting” and adds that changes in driving behavior are often perceived by the relatives of a person who is later diagnosed with the disease.
“What they will tell us is that often one of the first symptoms or signs they notice is that their loved one started… getting lost,” says Phipps.
Few drugs for the early stages
The specialist explains that there are currently relatively few drugs available to treat Alzheimer’s disease in its initial phase, but she hopes that this will change in the future.
If this is the case, have a early indication who is prone to developing the disease – without the need for expensive or invasive procedures – could help clinicians know when to prescribe treatments.
The disease can start in the brain up to 20 years before symptoms appear, experts say. (Photo: Getty Images)
“Research has shown that the disease can actually start in the brain up to 20 years before symptoms appear,” he says.
Data about driving or other behaviors, such as changes in the way you speak, could also drive lifestyle changes to help keep Alzheimer’s at bay.
The UK National Health Service advises taking care of heart health and staying socially and mentally active, among other preventive measures that citizens can take.
The idea that driving analysis could help people control and even delay the onset of the most severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s sounds tempting.
But there is always the possibility of errors in this analysis. Or that the results have negative consequences.
Many drivers of all ages already allow their insurer to use telematics or a black box to measure their driving, which can lead to a lower insurance premium.
But in the future,could these devices predict exactly your risk of Alzheimer’s and take it into account too?
Although this potential scenario is a long way from the insurance market, it is something that could be of concern to current black box owners, who have had problems with the accuracy of their devices in the past.
Rhoda Au of Boston University argues that clients should have more control over the fate of their data in general, to avoid unfair discrimination of their habits or behaviors.
(Photo: Roe Lab)
“They should have the right to decide what is shared and what is not”, it states.
He jokingly points out that his own driving could be considered erratic: “I’m just thinking: God, these Google folks must think I’m crazy … I have no sense of direction.”
The specialist believes that, in general, new data collection systems designed to find subtle correlations between behavior and medical conditions are likely to be flawed. But given the possible advantages of being able to identify people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in time, there are good reasons to explore carefully those possibilities now.
“You have to start somewhere,” he reflects.
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