Exercise is one of the best – and cheapest- anti-aging antidotes. I’m willing to guess that you already knew that, even if you are a little shaky on the how’s and why’s. But you may not have realized that all forms of exercise are not equally effective, even when the exercise really revs up your heart and your muscles. It turns out that although everyone benefits from a lifestyle that includes regular workouts, it’s the bicyclists who seem to garner the most rewards from their efforts, including the benefits of greater road safety.
Driving accidents are a serious concern that people face as they get older but not because they are poor drivers. Despite the widespread belief that older drivers are unsafe, many actually monitor their own driving patterns so that they avoid situations that place them at greatest risk (NHTSA, 2010). Compared to young adults, older drivers are less likely to drive fast, at night, or when weather conditions are poor. More young adults are involved in accidents that involve distracted driving or driving under the influence. The difficulties that older drivers face tend to involve integrating information from rapidly changing situations when they must divide their attention among multiple sources of input. As a result, in countries where cars travel in the right lane, older drivers are more likely to have an accident while making a left-hand turn (Braitman et al., 2006).
The problem for older drivers in particular is made far worse by the fact that many intersections are inherently confusing (as shown by this picture of a street sign in Boston, Mass.). With signs pointing every which way, multiple lights, pedestrian crossings, and other drivers potentially cutting you off, the situation can rapidly become overwhelming for anyone, regardless of age. Older drivers may not cause more accidents due to carelessness, speed, or alcohol, but when they do have an accident, it's more likely to result in fatal injuries to themselves.
People can be poor drivers at all ages, but accidents due to information overload are more likely to occur in older adults with cognitive deficits. Researchers who compare different age drivers use a variety of laboratory tasks to understand what exactly the problems are that older adults face. A task known as visual search is particularly well-suited to measuring the cognitive skills you need to be a good driver. These skills include attention (being able to detect a stimulus) and so-called “executive function”- being able to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.
The figure here shows what a screen might appear like in a task like this. Your job is to say whether you see a particular stimulus (the “target”) among the other items (the “distractors”). Most people find it pretty easy to spot a target that is different from the distractors in only one way (a blue circle among red circles). When you have to pick out targets that differ from the surround in more than one way (blue circle among blue squares, red circles, and red squares), you will take longer to make your decision. How quickly and accurately you can search for a target is one indicator of how well you’ll be when you’re behind the wheel of a car, especially when the visual search task is hard. The more you have to decide how to channel your attention, the more you rely on your executive functions. You can’t look at everything at once; you have to decide where to focus your eyes, and this is where executive function comes into play. When you're driving, that decision must often be made in a split second, making the stakes even higher for older adults who may be slower in their responses.
Many studies of attention and aging conducted over the past few decades show that people tend to get slower on complex visual search tasks as they get older, even starting as early as the 40s or 50s. Not content simply to show that people get slower with age, researchers now are attempting to establish ways to slow the slowing process. The hot new area of aging research examines cognitive “plasticity”- the notion that aging doesn’t have to mean loss of abilities. Some of the interventions to promote plasticity include physical activity, computer games, and participation in music and dance. The results of studies on cognitive intervention and aging are clear: being physically active keeps you mentally active. Researchers agree that cognitive plasticity in older adults isn't jsut possible- it's very doable.
The latest in these studies uses an intriguing approach to show how physical exercise can benefit the brain—specifically the kinds of attention and decisions required in driving. In a first-of-its kind study, Italian researcher Caterina Pesce and her associates ()2011) at the University of Rome took on the question of whether endurance bicyclists in their 60s and 70s would perform better on a visual search task while they were actually cycling. Other studies on exercise and mental acuity in older adults have compared performance in general, not while participants were actually exercising at the time. By seeing how the cyclists did while on their bikes, Pesce and her team could find out how they would react to quickly-changing stimuli while on the road.
You might wonder whether it’s just exercise or bicycling specifically that would lead to any positive effects on attention in the older cyclists. In fact, the research team compared endurance cyclists with other endurance athletes to control for just such a possibility. They also compared both groups to age-matched sedentary individuals. The task required that the participants scan a visual array that required them to detect complex targets, testing both their response time and their executive functions.
To no one’s surprise, both the endurance cyclists and athletes out-performed the sedentary individuals on the visual search task. Both groups of exercisers were about equal in their response times. They differed, however, in their ability to react quickly in one particular condition that closely simulated the cognitive demands of riding out on the open road. If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle in traffic, you know that you have to be on the lookout for cars, pedestrians, potholes, and any obstacles in the road. You have to look everywhere around you but then quickly focus on what’s right in front of you, or you’ll fall or crash into something. It was on this type of task that the cyclists showed their true advantage. They beat even their physically fit age peers who exercised in ways other than on a bicycle, surpassing them in speed and accuracy of their decisions.
Clearly, the next step is to monitor the performance of bicyclists not just on a bicycle but in a car or driver simulation task in the lab. However, it’s clear even from this study that all exercise is not created equal. Bicycling on a regular basis throughout life can give you the specific advantage of making better decisions when a quick response is needed.
In general, we can add this study to our list of experiments demonstrating the existence of cognitive plasticity in later life. Exercising when you’re young is the physical and psychological equivalent of starting a 401K. Get on that bike now, and you’ll be investing in a lifetime of better health, fewer cognitive losses, and even fewer road accidents. For people who value having an independent lifestyle for as long as possible, it’s hard to imagine a better formula for long-term success.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Braitman, K. A., Kirley, B. B., Chaudhary, N. K., & Ferguson, S. A. (2006). Factors leading to older drivers’ intersection crashes, from http://www.iihs.org/research/topics/pdf/older_drivers.pdf
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2010). Fatality analysis reporting system encyclopedia, from http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/QueryTool/QuerySection/Report.aspx
Pesce, C., Cereatti, L., Forte, R., Crova, C., & Casella, R. (2011). Acute and Chronic Exercise Effects on Attentional Control in Older Road Cyclists. Gerontology, 57(2), 121-128. doi:10.1159/000314685