HomeLifeDriveOlder drivers and common meds: a deadly combo?

Older drivers and common meds: a deadly combo?

Are your medications driving you to distraction? Or, more pertinently, are they detracting from your driving?

This question has been posed after evidence was found of a link between common medications and poor driving.

The medications in question are not prescription drugs. Those ones will usually be accompanied by the familiar, “do not operate heavy machinery” warning.

No, in this case, it’s everyday medications – paracetamol and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – that have been linked to potential impairment.

The warning comes from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) based on newly published US research.

Older drivers and medications

Scientists from Washington University in Missouri studied a cohort of 198 older drivers, all aged 65 and older, and all healthy over a 10-year period.

Each person was given a driving test at the beginning of the study, and then annually thereafter. Researchers also recorded data about medications the drivers were taking over that period.

They found a link between a number of freely available medications – prescription and non-prescription – and impaired driving. The ‘offending’ drugs included antidepressants, sedatives or hypnotics, and NSAIDs.

In better news, the researchers found no statistically significant associations between anticholinergics or antihistamines and poor performance. (Anticholinergics are often used as a treatment for incontinence.)

How are these drugs affecting driving performance?

Answering this question adequately requires the unravelling of a severely knotted metaphorical ball of string. And the truth is, this research has really only unwound the outer perimeter of that ball.

These common drugs may well play no part at all in impairing older drivers. While the study establishes a potential link, the reason for the link is obscure.

For example, an older driver may be taking anti-inflammatories for joint pain in the knee or shoulder. If that driver shows a drop in driving performance over the time of taking those medications, a link is established.

However, the drop in performance might well be caused by slower braking reaction times because of knee pain. Or the older driver’s steering may not be as good as previously because of shoulder soreness.

In such cases, there is a correlation between taking medications and performance drop, but the medications are not the cause. It’s possible, in fact, that without medications, the performance of these older drivers may have been worse.

What should older drivers do?

From a driver perspective, a common sense approach is probably still best. Talk to your GP about any concerns you may have about medications possibly affecting your driving.

The RACGP’s focus following the study’s release is not so much on the older drivers, but on the GPs themselves.

The college recommends health professionals assessing patients’ fitness to drive and offering advice regarding medication use, should consider a number of factors. These include:

  • the balance between potential impairment due to the drug and the patient’s improvement in health on safe driving ability
  • the individual response – some people are more affected than others
  • the type of licence held and the nature of the driving task
  • the risks of combining two or more drugs capable of causing impairment, including alcohol
  • the added risks of sleep deprivation on driving, which is particularly relevant to commercial vehicle drivers
  • the potential impact of changing medications or changing dosage
  • the cumulative effects of medications
  • other medical conditions that may combine to affect driving ability
  • other factors that may exacerbate risks such as a history of alcohol or drug misuse.

Have you had any concerns about taking medications as an older driver? Have you discussed this with your GP?  Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Do older drivers pose more risk?

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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