Dr. Gwen Bergen of the CDC on how older adults can remain mobile and be safer drivers

Dr Gwen BergenDr. Gwen Bergen’s personal experiences are what led to her interest in public health. She grew up whitewater kayaking and canoeing and had some friends who were hurt and another who drowned as a result of these activities. What she realized, consequently, is that many fatal and nonfatal injuries are preventable.

She earned her master’s degree in public health at Emory University and went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University where she focused on behavioral science with a concentration in injury. Later, she completed a service fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in Hyattsville, Maryland. While she was with NCHS, she did injury research studies and used general health data sets to collect injury data and created and published, Injury in the United States: 2007 Chartbook.

Dr. Bergen now serves as a Behavioral Scientist on the Home and Recreation Team in the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Before serving in her current position, she was on the Transportation Safety Team for six years. She works to prevent older adult falls, to understand older adult mobility issues, and investigates better sources of surveillance and economic data for unintentional injury.

Retirement Planning and Mobility Exercises

Through her research, Dr. Bergen has discovered some interesting statistics on older adult drivers and she notes that there are no clear tests that tell us when a person needs to stop driving. But she believes as a nation we are starting to move in the direction of doing the research to determine if there are some clear indicators. “It’s not always because older adults are unsafe drivers; it’s because they become frailer as they age, making them more susceptible to injury.” She adds, “The data that surprised me the most from my research since I’ve been in this field is how few options there are for older adults when they stop driving.”

So what can we do to ensure that we can remain mobile and safer as older adults? Thankfully, the CDC has a plan in development to address these issues, and Dr. Bergen says they are taking a holistic approach.

“We’re developing a mobility planning tool, aimed at adults who are 60-74 years old to use at the same time they begin planning their retirement.” She adds, “Retirement planning may include where they’re going to live, how they’re going to finance it, and it’s a perfect time to start thinking about how their mobility might change as they age. It’s something we all need to be better prepared for.”

Dr. Bergen also suggests that older adults do these three things on a regular basis to be the best drivers they can be.

  • Daily Exercise: It’s a fact that we become frailer as we age. Falls are the number one cause of injury deaths in older adults, and combined with motor vehicle crashes— both of which are related to mobility — they are the leading causes of injury. Regular exercise can increase strength and can potentially prevent falls to keep older adults driving longer.
  • Review Medications: As people age, they can develop health conditions that require taking a lot of medications, and sometimes these drugs may be too strong for older adults, or the medications may have interactions. Older adults should ask their doctor or pharmacist to review their medications, including prescription drugs, over the counter drugs, and even herbal and natural remedies. It’s always a good idea to make sure that there aren’t any interactions and to see if the dosages may need adjusting to reduce side effects.
  • Yearly Eye Exams: A yearly vision exam is important for older drivers. If cataracts are detected, get them corrected. Make sure glasses and corrective lenses are the right prescription and wear them while driving. If you are restricted to day driving, abide by your doctor’s orders.

Know Your Transportation Options

For older adults who need rides temporarily, or for those who have already made the decision to stop driving, there are transportation options out there. For example, Rides in Sight, a program of ITNAmerica is listed on the CDC website as a resource for those seeking transportation for a variety of reasons.

Dr. Bergen says that after her mother had surgery, which kept her from driving for three months, she went to Rides in Sight to see what was available on the days she wasn’t able to drive her around. “Rides in Sight allows people to find local transportation options quickly.” She adds, “Our choice to list it as a resource on the CDC website came from talking to ITNAmerica, and learning how they continuously update and evaluate the data to make sure it’s the best transportation information they can give.”

Another takeaway from Dr. Bergen’s research is that when older adults stop driving it can lead to social isolation and depression, and maybe even a shortened lifespan. She notes, “I know for adult children the decision to take the car away from their parent is a tough one to make, especially knowing what it does to their independence.” However, these conversations can be easier if you familiarize yourself with the senior transportation options available in your area.

We all need to take the time to educate ourselves about mobility health and safety issues, and with proper planning and the right tools, the transition from driving can be less stressful for older adults and their loved ones.

For more information on Motor Vehicle Safety, please visit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online.