One Drink Appears To Be Too Many for Baby Boomers
and Senior Citizens
Older drivers may not imbibe enough alcohol to put
them over legal driving limit but just one drink can affect their
driving abilities – See video report in story
By Morgan Sherburne, Science Writer, UF Health.
March 7, 2014 - You may have only had one glass of
wine with dinner, but if you’re 55 or older, that single serving may hit
you hard enough to make you a dangerous driver. So, baby boomers and
senior citizens, what you suspected is true: you can’t party like you
Sara Jo Nixon, Ph.D., a professor in the
departments of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Florida
and doctoral candidate Alfredo Sklar tested how drinking legally
non-intoxicating levels of alcohol affect the driving skills of two age
groups: 36 people ages 25 to 35 and 36 people ages 55 to 70.
They found that although neither age group imbibed
enough alcohol to put them over the legal driving limit, a blood alcohol
level of 0.08, just one drink can affect the driving abilities of older
drivers. Based on the study findings published in the journal
Psychopharmacology in February, the researchers say it could be time
to reassess legal blood alcohol levels for all drivers.
“These simulations have been used a lot in looking
at older adults, and they have been used at looking how alcohol affects
the driving of younger adults, but no one’s ever looked at the
combination of aging drivers and alcohol,” Sklar said Alfredo Sklar.
The study is the latest in a body of work by Nixon
and her team that looks at how even moderate doses of alcohol affect
At the beginning of the study, both groups
completed a driving task completely sober. The task took the drivers
down a simulated winding 3-mile stretch of country road. The drivers
stared straight ahead at a large computer monitor. Two computer monitors
flanked the first, mimicking the side windows of a car and what the
drivers would see in their peripheral vision. A stereo system played
driving sounds. A console included a steering wheel and brake and gas
pedals. Occasionally, the drivers would encounter an oncoming car, but
they did not encounter other distractions.
“There wasn’t even a cow,” said Nixon, who also is
co-vice chair and chief of the division of addiction research in the
department of psychiatry in the UF College of Medicine and UF’s Evelyn
F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute.
Researchers assessed the drivers’ ability to stay
in the center of their lane and maintain a constant speed. They also
looked at how rapidly they adjusted their steering wheel.
On a later day, the groups were further separated
into groups. The first imbibed a placebo — a diet lemon-lime soda misted
with a negligible amount of alcohol to mimic the experience of drinking
alcohol. A second group’s drink was strong enough to produce a 0.04
percent breath alcohol level, and a third group’s drink gave them a
breath alcohol level of 0.065 percent — still below the federal legal
level for drinking of 0.08.
Participants then completed the same driving task
they performed when they were sober. Researchers timed the task so
participants’ alcohol levels were declining to mimic a situation in
which individuals have a drink with dinner and then drive home.
In younger adults, the researchers found alcohol
consumption did not affect their measured driving skills at all — a
finding that Nixon called a “bit surprising.”
She warned that the absence of effects in this
laboratory setting does not mean that young adult drivers’ driving
wouldn’t be affected in normal circumstances, driving in a typical,
real-world setting. She noted that the laboratory setting was simplified
compared with real-world driving and that the current data don’t address
potential problems in more complex settings.
But for the older drivers, the small, legal levels
of intoxication did affect their driving.
The researchers are evaluating additional study
results. Participants also drove a course through a small-town setting
as well as a city setting, complete with pedestrians, motorists who
violated traffic signs and other challenges. Sklar and others in the
laboratory will examine brain electrophysiological data collected
through scalp electrodes embedded in caps that the subjects were wearing
during the drive to study how the brain responds during the driving test
when dosed with alcohol.
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