Under the influence: More adults over 65 driving after drinking or drug use

September 22, 2021

By Sally Crocker

Dr. Andrew Yockey

An estimated 3% of adults over age 65 are driving under the influence of alcohol, according to one of the first research studies to delve into an emerging national concern.

Experts said this statistic is especially worrisome given that older Americans are already more prone to higher crash rates and accident-related deaths due to aging.

The study, recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, was led by R. Andrew Yockey, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s School of Public Health. Dr. Yockey was joined in this project by research colleagues from East Carolina University, HSC (Stacey Griner, PhD, MPH) and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that more than 20 older adults are killed every day in motor vehicle accidents across the United States and almost 700 are injured in crashes.

In 2017, about 7,000 individuals aged 65 or older died in collisions and about 15,000 were injured, resulting in higher hospitalization rates and increased U.S. health care costs.

This population accounted for 18% of all traffic fatalities in 2017.

“Driving errors tend to increase with age,” Dr. Yockey said. “Perception slows, reaction time is not as sharp, and the risks for accident or injury increase. For those driving under the influence, the potential for negative consequences can double.”

Today there are over 40 million licensed, driving adults aged 65 or older on the roads, representing a 34% increase over the last decade, “making it critical to understand their driving behaviors and risks of driving under the influence, to address injury preventions and ways we can help them reduce this harm,” Dr. Yockey added.

For this study, the researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for the years 2015–2019 to assess the demographic characteristics of people over 65 who drove while under the influence of drugs or alcohol within the previous year. Their frequency in wearing seatbelts was also measured.

“Under the influence” was defined as binge alcohol use or the misuse of substances including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines or opioids, taken in any way not directed by a doctor or in greater amounts or for longer periods of time than prescribed.

Gender, race, education and income level were also considered in this analysis of nearly 19,000 participants across the country.

“Our study found that binge alcohol use and drugged driving are up significantly among older adults,” Dr. Yockey reported.

One in 10 of those surveyed were found to binge drink and were up to 8 times more likely to drive under the influence. About 3% of those studied did not wear seat belts. Those identifying as racial/ethnic minorities were all less likely to drive under the influence than non-Hispanic white participants.

“These findings have important health implications for older individuals, not only as the number of older drivers in the U.S. is increasing, but also as aging places them at a higher risk for complex health conditions and physical and cognitive declines,” Dr. Yockey said.

“Adding alcohol or substance-related driving to this mix only magnifies the concerns for this population and other drivers around them,” he added.

The researchers said next steps in addressing this problem should include public health screenings, preventions and patient-centered, culturally competent approaches to help those over 65 reduce harm and risks from these behaviors.

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