Older Pilots Perform Better, Study Finds

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Researchers studying the impact of aging on performance found that older pilots performed better over time than younger pilots, the American Academy of Neurology reported on Monday. The results show that expert knowledge may offset the impact of old age. The report is sure to be warmly embraced by those now lobbying for a change in FAA rules to raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65. "These findings show the advantageous effect of prior experience and specialized expertise on older adults' skilled cognitive performances," said researcher Joy Taylor of the Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center in California. For the study, researchers tested 118 pilots, ages 40 to 69, annually for three years. All pilots were currently flying, had between 300 and 15,000 hours of total flight time and held a current FAA medical certificate. In flight simulators, pilots were tested on communications, traffic avoidance, scanning cockpit instruments to detect emergencies, and executing a visual approach.

The study found that while older pilots initially performed worse than younger pilots, older pilots showed less of a decline over time than younger pilots. The study also found pilots with advanced FAA pilot ratings and certifications showed less performance decline over time, regardless of age. Researchers suggest that pilots with advanced FAA pilot ratings may develop "crystallized intelligence," similar to the way skills are developed by musicians or chess experts, who are able to maintain high performance standards as they age.