Aston Research Centre for Healthy Ageing (ARCHA) comprises researchers from diverse fields, all of whom are focused on promoting a healthy lifespan. Research topics range from problems with eyesight amongst older adults, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, to the use of bioactive materials in joint replacement. ARCHA’s Director, Dr Carol Holland, has specific interests in the ageing mind and impacts on ageing lives, and has recently been studying driver behaviour amongst older adults.
The population of the UK is growing and becoming increasingly older. The fastest population increases have been in the ‘oldest old’ (those aged 85 and over). By 2035 it is expected that the number of people aged 85 and over will reach 3.5 million and will account for five per cent of the total UK population. Psychologist Dr Carol Holland studies cognitive changes in old age, particularly with regard to older drivers - a group often stereotyped as dangerous behind the wheel.
So should pensioners hand back their licenses? Not necessarily, says Dr Holland.
“The statistics are really very positive,” she explains. “Older drivers are an extremely safe group of drivers. People have this stereotype of older adults not being safe on the road, but it’s not true. For example, people often look at killed or seriously injured statistics, rather than total incidents, and we know that in any given accident, an older frailer person is more likely to be seriously injured. Overall driving incidents such as collisions don’t increase with increasing age. Older drivers might drive slower which could annoy some people, but very few cause collisions”.
Not the End of the Road
Dr Holland has been measuring participants using a driving simulator at Aston University and her findings are surprising. If you look at vision or reaction times or the ability to maintain attention during complex tasks, older people are worse at these tasks than younger drivers. However, the older group is having fewer collisions. Why?
“What they’re doing is they’re self-regulating. They don’t drive in poor light if they perceive that their vision isn’t very good or they don’t drive when the sun’s low and will give them quite a bit of glare. Or maybe they don’t go out at rush hour, because they find it a bit threatening and they don’t have to because they’re not going to work. I’ve even come across people who plan a whole route without a right turn across a junction.”
The problem, explains Dr Holland, is not that older people are driving - it’s that they are giving up before they need to.
“It’s fascinating, both from a cognitive point of view but also from an ageing lives point of view,” says Dr Holland, “because if somebody does give up driving, the risks of social isolation are huge. Older women in particular are known to give up earlier and in better health than older men, and this is a group more at risk of social isolation as a consequence. We know that social isolation predicts frailty and frailty predicts the need for care, and so on. It is a bigger issue than people think.”
Another interest of Dr Holland’s is the impact of post-retirement activity on cognitive skills, particularly on the ability to recall specific autobiographical memories. In a study, co-authored with Kevin Corcoran, she compared two groups: allotment gardeners and social club attendees. Thirty-six volunteers aged over 60 took part, and the results showed that the social club attendees were slower at recalling specific memories than the allotment gardeners, particularly in the group aged over 74. The reason that the allotment gardeners were more competent, says Dr Holland, is probably due to a combination of fresh air and physical exercise, good diet (as they were eating what they grew), and involvement in a task that is intellectually complex.
“If you really can’t recall specific memories you are more at risk of getting depressed than others; you’re also more at risk of social isolation because you’re not really using that kind of memory to make relationships and interact with other people,” she explains.
The good news is that our genetic inheritance – though it plays a part – is not the be-all and end-all of ageing. Dr Holland’s research, and that of other colleagues in ARCHA, is highlighting how lifestyle in early and middle age, and the choices we make post-retirement, are all factors in how well we cope with getting older.
“We’re all getting older, so older people are not ‘them’ it’s all of us eventually,” adds Dr Holland. “An underlying aim for ARCHA is to reduce that gap between actual longevity and healthy lifespan. People are living longer, which is fantastic, but it’s making sure that as much of that lifespan as possible is spent in good health with a good quality of life. I think older people are often undervalued and stereotyped but we’re gradually addressing some of those things.”