On the heels of last week’s discussion of “a pill for everything,” we can add the development of a pill to reverse aging. The idea of a “fountain of youth” pill may have been scoffed at by serious scientists a decade or so ago, but no longer. Recent research in this area has shown some promising findings in animal studies, stoking new scientific enthusiasm. The scientific community and deep-pocket investors know a growth market when they see one.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for the first time in U.S. history, older people are projected to outnumber children in a little over a decade. As the population ages, the “old-age dependency ratio” is projected to rise in just two years, resulting in about four working-age adults for every retirement-age person. By the year 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans is projected to be of retirement age, an important demographic turning point.
The implications of this shift in our society are staggering. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 National Population Projections, this shift will cause an epochal transformation for which very few of our institutions are prepared. It is also going to elevate an “age-old” question. How old is too old to drive?
In 2016, 42 million adults 65 and older were licensed to drive, an increase of 15 million from 20 years ago. By 2030, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 1 of every 4 drivers will be an older adult.
While some may start thinking about traffic safety concerns, let us put this into the proper perspective. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 85-year-old males are one of the two groups with the highest crash rates. The other is young people 20 to 24. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most older drivers have good driving habits.
While the American Automobile Association reports that fatal crashes increase per mile traveled after the age of 75, this is not because older adults are more likely to be involved in crashes; they merely have a higher chance of suffering severe medical complications or injury as the result of a crash. By far, the greatest numbers of vehicular deaths are substance abuse-related. Drivers over 65 have a high incidence of seatbelt use. They are also generally more discerning about the weather conditions they drive in and have a low incidence of impaired driving. The seniors who continue to drive tend to be very selective about when they do so.
Still, if you’ve ever tried to get an aging parent to give up driving, you know it can be a challenging experience. Getting behind the wheel of a car represents so much more than transportation. It is a major symbol of independence.
Being willing and able to stop driving requires a person to have realistic expectations about their declining mobility and a plan for how to handle it.
As Dr. Dana King, a professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University, asks in Kaiser Health News, “People do financial planning for retirement, but what about retirement health planning?” She also points out that seniors need to be both aware of and responsive to key warning signs that it is time to stop driving. On this checklist, vision is recognized as the single most important source of information we use while navigating and making judgment calls. Once a senior becomes too old to drive safely and faces sound reasons for not getting behind the wheel, they must have alternative transportation available to them. A future when vehicles drive themselves could provide an answer.
This was not the market the folks in Silicon Valley had in mind when they hatched the idea of driverless, autonomous vehicles. Thanks to issues now being raised in discussions with designers, automakers and federal regulators, that thinking is beginning to change. An initial critical question is whether autonomous vehicles will be wheelchair-accessible.
These discussions are not limited to the needs of seniors. According to the CDC, more than 60 million people in this country are hearing- or vision-impaired. In addition, an estimated 3.5 million Americans have some form of autism, and nearly 400,000 have Down syndrome. These groups also stand to benefit from achieving the semblance of independence that this new technology could provide.
Unfortunately, these discussions are entering the conversation a bit late in the game. Test fleets are apparently already on the road in many states, including some vehicles without a backup driver behind the wheel. According to Google’s autonomous-car division, its driverless cars program has already logged an estimated 3.5 million miles in 22 test cities.
For those who have felt trapped by four walls, forced to rely on the disparities in public transit, the allure of fully autonomous cars could be immense. Given this population’s reluctance to latch on to new technologies – and the busload of unanswered questions and obstacles to come – we will just have to wait and see where this is all headed.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.