Driving behaviors and demographic factors can help to accurately detect early mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults, according to engineers and public health researchers from Columbia University in New York City.

Past research has tied driving errors, traffic violations and automobile accidents to the presence of beta-amyloid brain plaques, the key signal of Alzheimer’s disease. In the current study, researchers used machine-learning models to analyze results from in-vehicle recording devices in a real-world setting. They measured 29 variables in a set of 2,977 older adult participants, aged 65 to 79 years. 

Image of Sharon Di, Ph.D.
Sharon Di, Ph.D.

Not surprisingly, the results revealed that age was most predictive of MCI and dementia. But that was followed by driving variables, such as the percentage of trips traveled within 15 miles of home, the minutes per trip chain (such as length of trips starting and ending at home), the minutes per trip, and the number of hard braking events with deceleration rates. The study participant’s race/ethnicity was also a predictive factor.

“Based on variables derived from the naturalistic driving data and basic demographic characteristics … we could predict mild cognitive impairment and dementia with 88% accuracy,” said lead author Sharon Di, Ph.D., associate professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics. The prediction was much more accurate using this model when compared with models based on demographic characteristics only (29%) and driving variables only (66%), she reported. 

“Driving is a complex task involving dynamic cognitive processes and requiring essential cognitive functions and perceptual motor skills,” added senior author Guohua Li, M.D., DrPH. “Our study indicates that naturalistic driving behaviors can be used as comprehensive and reliable markers for mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

“If validated, the algorithms developed in this study could provide a novel, unobtrusive screening tool for early detection and management of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older drivers,” Li concluded.

Study data were gleaned from the Longitudinal Research on Aging Drivers (LongROAD) project, a multisite cohort study sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety from 2015 to 2019.

The findings were published in the journal Geriatrics.