Pilots will have to undergo and pass constant physical examinations throughout their entire careers. So, you’d expect them to be healthier than the average person.
However, there are lots of risks associated with being a pilot. The occupation and lifestyle expose pilots to several health threats that can ultimately shorten their lifespan.
Throughout an often 35+ year career, pilots will cross time zones, move through magnetic variations, breathe contaminated and processed air, work irregular hours, lose lots of sleep and eat unhealthy ‘on-the-go’ food as well as processed airline foods, among others.
Not to mention exposure to radiation, pressure changes, high levels of stress, and sitting for hours at a time.
These factors can speed up the aging process for many pilots and research suggests they often die younger than the average population, particularly after retirement.
Do airline pilots die early?
It has been long-debated whether pilots are more likely to die early.
In the U.S., the average life expectancy for women is 75-years-old and 70-years-old for men. Whereas the average life expectancy for U.S. pilots is 67-years-old.
There are a number of contributing factors as to why pilots may die early.
For example, pilots are more at risk of developing certain life-threatening diseases such as skin cancer than the average person, due to cockpit radiation.
Pilots rely on being protected by the windshield but, they cannot fully block UV radiation so the more time they spend in the air, the more radiation they will be exposed to.
In fact, it is thought that the radiation in the cockpit after one hour of flying is similar to spending 20 minutes on a sunbed, according to an article posted on the Daily Mail.
The article continues, researchers have found that flying over thick clouds and snow fields can reflect UV radiation which is why levels are higher for pilots.
The average career of a successful pilot can span about 35+ years - that’s a lot of radiation!
As science and technology progresses, airlines are becoming better equipped to protect pilots from the sun’s rays and UV radiation but the problem still continues.
So, the likelihood of pilots suffering from illness is significantly higher than the average person which would suggest they may die earlier.
Do pilots age faster?
Flying through different time zones in a short space of time means pilots lose out on hours of sleep which over time can take its toll.
Sleep disruption can cause serious health issues. Some pilots will suffer with this to a larger extent than others, but ultimately all pilots will deal with time zone changes and lack of sleep as part of the job.
Pilots do have the opportunity to sleep at some point during long-haul flights but, sleeping in a small cabin thousands of feet above the clouds is not as restful as a nice bed on solid ground.
Plus, other factors such as turbulence and loud noises/ vibrations will further disrupt their sleep.
Plus, spending hours and hours sitting in a cockpit exposed to high-altitude radiation, pressure changes, loud noises and vibrations and stress can put a lot of strain on the human body, a lot more strain than the typical body would go through on the ground.
Stress and strain on the human body causes the ‘telomeres’ to shorten, resulting in a faster aging process. Telomeres are situated at the end of our chromosomes and affect a cell’s ability to divide.
Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter and once they become too short they will no longer be able to divide and will resultantly die.
This results in the person’s body aging faster as everything starts to slow down.
This could explain why pilots may be aging faster than the average person.
How long do pilots live after retirement?
Research suggests that pilots often die shortly after retirement. The mandatory retirement age for U.S. pilots is 60 and the average age at the time of death for pilots in the U.S. is 67.
There have been several studies that look into this further.
According to a study published by Flight Safety Foundation's Flight Safety Digest, airline pilot death rates are far higher after retirement compared to the rest of the population.
The study found that 69 percent of pilot deaths took place within the first nine years of retirement whereas only 45 percent of deaths of the general population occurred in the same time frame after retirement.
By the time pilots get to retirement age, their bodies will have been through years of stress, radiation, pressure, sleep deprivation, among others.
Contributing factors likely include, illnesses developed as a result of the job such as skin cancer and the extra strain placed on a pilots body causing them to age faster.