A study from Yale University shows that regular, low-impact exercise may help the elderly retain the flexibility, coordination and speed of movement necessary for driving.

Researchers, including Dr. Richard Marottoli, a Yale University School of Medicine associate professor, evaluated 178 individuals age 70 and older who drive at least once a week.

The study evaluated participants on driving performance in urban, residential and highway traffic. Performance was ranked on a 36-item scale that included driving maneuvers and traffic situations, according to the study abstract. Drivers were evaluated again after three months.

Drivers who participated in graduated exercises made 37 percent fewer “critical” driving errors than those who did not participate in the exercises, according to the study.

The exercises mostly included stretching activities involving the arms and legs, as well as some walking, Marottoli said.

"We targeted capabilities we wanted to improve such hand and leg coordination and we were also concerned with safety so we didn't want to do anything that would be too strenuous," he said. "We didn't work on strength training because of the safety concern and because we didn't feel it would have any direct impact on driving skills."

Elderly Driving Statistics

Drivers age 70 and older have second-highest incidence of traffic fatalities of all age groups, about 25 deaths per 100,000, according to national statistics. Only teens have higher fatality rates at 30 deaths per 100,000.

And, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a 75-year-old driver is three times more likely to die in a car crash than a 23-year-old.

A 2003 accident, in which an 86-year-old plowed his car through a farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 people and injuring more than 45, calls to attention the need for better regulation of elderly drivers.

Currently, only two states, New Hampshire and Illinois, require people older than 75 to take a driving test every time they renew their licenses.

Could Exercise be the Key?

The Yale study concluded that safe, well-tolerated exercises do help elderly drivers. It showed that, while the driving skills of the participants who did not exercise declined over a three-month period, the skills of those people who did exercise were maintained or enhanced.

"Exactly what it was that made them improve their skills isn't entirely clear," Marottoli said. "It may have a psychological impact or allow for quicker movement. But, based on what we do know, I would recommend some stretching exercises not only to help with driving skills but because of the other benefits they would provide for conditions such as arthritis."

Marottoli said he would be doing future research on the relationship between exercise and elderly drivers possibly using larger test groups and looking at how exercise coupled with educational intervention can be of benefit.

The complete study was published in the May issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

This article was reviewed by Dr. Manny Alvarez