Are the long drives of the Big Lap turning grey nomad brains to mush?

It has long been widely accepted that hitting the open road after retirement is a wonderful thing for older people to do, helping them to stay stimulated and engaged with the world around them.

Indeed, psychologists have repeatedly stressed that one of the biggest dangers that men and women face after their working lives are over is a feeling of being lost and unproductive.

It seems obvious then that, rather than facing the temptations of daytime TV or long hours ‘pottering’ in the garden, a life filled with social opportunities, an ever-changing environment, and a million-and-one daily challenges would be infinitely preferable.

Surely that means the endless open road and the grey nomad lifestyle is the only way to go?

long drives on the Big Lap

Well, maybe not.

Conventional wisdom was challenged a few years ago by the findings of British researchers who claim that spending a lot of time driving actually reduces your intelligence, and that it keeps dropping the longer you drive. The NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre analysed the lifestyles of more than 500,000 Britons aged between 37 and 73 over five years, during which they took intelligence and memory tests.

The 93,000 people who drove more than two to three hours a day typically had lower brainpower at the start of the study, which kept on declining throughout at a faster rate than those who did little or no driving.

“We know that regularly driving for more than two to three hours a day is bad for your heart,” said study leader Kishan Bakrania, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Leicester. “This research suggests it is bad for your brain, too, perhaps because your mind is less active in those hours.”

Interestingly, watching TV was found to be as bad as driving, whereas people who used computers did not have a decline in intelligence tests. This suggests there could be other factors besides inactivity in play. Driving is known to cause stress and fatigue, and previous studies have shown links between these conditions and cognitive decline.

The researchers, who were studying how sedentary behaviour affects brainpower, suggest that people who want to protect their brains against the ravages of ageing should minimise their time on the road and engage in more mentally stimulating activities … such as socialising.

There is then hope for grey nomads, even those who are currently putting in significant time behind the wheel as they drive the Stuart Highway, across the Nullarbor, or elsewhere.

“I don’t accept that driving along seeing amazing scenery, thinking about the history of the place, talking to my wife, and planning the weeks ahead is making me stupid,” said veteran traveller Ollie T. “And, even if it is, I’d rather been a dumb adventurer than a genius sitting behind a computer screen in suburbia.”

• How do you keep your brain active on long drives? Email us here to share your tips?

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