Aging Eyes Can Impact Pilot Performance To The Point Of Grounding

by: Patrick R. Veillette
About ol’ blue eyes, and brown and hazel
Visual cues are a pilot’s most-important sensory input. Since good eyesight is essential for safe operation of an aircraft, pilots must demonstrate adequate visual performance at every aeromedical exam. And for many of us as we have aged, we’ve had to squint at the eye chart, and maybe guess beginning with the third line. And the next time around, we were sporting spectacles. In my case, trifocals.
Inevitable changes occur to our eyes as we age, some due to the aviation environment but others because of time. Without proper preventive care and early detection, these changes can result in significant vision deterioration — enough to lose our careers and even our sight.
According to Dr. Stanley Mohler, director of aerospace medicine, Wright State University School of Medicine, “Aging brings gradual changes to the structure of the eye and quality of vision. These changes can result in problems ranging from difficulty focusing on close objects to dry eyes to diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.”
The likelihood of encountering serious eye deterioration in our flying careers is more significant than you might realize. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health retrospectively studied visual performance problems of 3,019 regional and air-taxi pilots aged 45-54 contained in aeromedical certification records of the FAA. According to the study, 419 of the 3,019 pilots in the sample developed serious vision problems, the three most-prevalent being corneal problems (16%), glaucoma (15%) and cataracts (7%).
According to the National Eye Institute, glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. A major risk factor is too much fluid pressure inside the eye due to blockage of the passages that drain aqueous fluid from the eye. Over time, the pressure can hurt the optic nerve. Most people with glaucoma have no early symptoms or pain from the extra pressure.
When detected in the early stages, glaucoma can be controlled, sometimes simply with eye drops, but treatments can also include pills, lasers or surgery. Without early detection and treatment, however, people with glaucoma will slowly lose their peripheral vision and can eventually go blind. You can protect yourself by having regular eye exams.
If confronted by glaucoma diagnosis, pilots must coordinate with their AMEs, and any initial Special Issuance requires an FAA decision due to the seriousness of the condition.
Cataracts are cloudy areas in the eye’s lens resulting from a change in the protein structure within it. This condition generally occurs after age 50. Symptoms include blurred vision, a loss of color perception acuity, glare, double vision, halos around objects and a need for more light to see clearly. Cataracts often form slowly without any symptoms. Some stay small and don’t change eyesight much. If caught early, cataracts can sometimes be treated with a change in eyeglass prescription. Others may become large or dense and harm vision.
Cataract surgery is relatively simple and actually one of the most-common procedures done in the US. It is performed on an outpatient basis and most who undergo it note a dramatic improvement in their distant vision immediately.
The “good news” for pilots who have cataract surgery is that their ophthalmologist or optometrist can complete the FAA’s Form 8500-7 “Report of Eye Evaluation,” which they can hand to their AMEs. Assuming they meet the visual acuity standards for their class of medical certificate, their respective AMEs can issue a new certificate at the time of the examination.
Retinal disorders, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), are a leading cause of blindness in the U.S. The macula is the part of the retina that provides sharp central vision. According to the Mayo Clinic, blurred vision and an inability to see clearly the details of objects in the center of the field of vision are the most-common early symptoms of AMD. Other symptoms include distortion of straight lines and changes in color perception……..
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Source: Aviation Week