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Pilot Study Questions Wisdom of Mandatory Retirement

Crewmen over 60 performed better, not worse, with time, study found

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HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 28, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- A new study of aging U.S. airline pilots questions the notion of mandatory retirement for workers, experts say.

The study found that any "skills gap" between pilots over age 60 and pilots in their 40s narrowed as years passed.

The study, by a team at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., suggests that age-based restrictions on work be abandoned in favor of competency-based criteria.

"Don't draw a line in the sand about age, just test competency," advised Dr. Joseph Sirven, an associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Phoenix. "If you can do it, and you're reasonably healthy and you can complete the job, that's the key."

Since 1959, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots at 60. Last November, the International Civil Aviation Organization raised its mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 -- provided a second pilot under 60 is also present in the cockpit. In January, the FAA announced its intention to follow suit.

Stanford researcher on aging Joy Taylor wanted to understand how age actually affects cognitive performance, not just on a simple written test but in the real world. So, Taylor and her team tested 118 general aviation (that is, non-commercial) pilots between the ages of 40 and 69 in a flight simulator over a three-year period to measure their performance in a battery of flight-related tasks such as traffic avoidance and communications.

The study yielded three major findings. The first was that, at the beginning of the study, the older pilots (aged 60-69) performed consistently worse overall compared to the younger pilots (aged 40-49).

Second, and not surprisingly, the more highly skilled pilots performed better in the simulator than did less-skilled pilots. "Pilots who went on to get the more advanced flight ratings perform better overall, regardless of age," Taylor said.

But the final observation, Taylor said, was "unexpected": "The older pilots start lower [in the simulator test scores], but do better from year to year than the youngest pilots."

Though older pilots are not likely to surpass younger pilots in testing, "the older pilots are closing the age gap in their performance from year to year. It's like they're learning something from year to year about this task," Taylor said.

Key to this effect was the older pilots' performance in the traffic-avoidance test that gauges how well test subjects avoid oncoming planes. Taylor suggested this could be a reflection of the deep well of experience older pilots can tap into, much as veteran musicians, athletes and chess players react almost without thinking to certain situations.

"There is something about the traffic-avoidance task that has some gamesmanship about it, in which the response is always the same," she explained. "It's a consistently mapped stimulus-response problem: This is the stimulus, and this is what you do."

The findings were published in the Feb. 27 issue of Neurology. The Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, which represents U.S. pilots, declined to comment on the study.

Sirven, who wrote an accompanying editorial on the study, called the findings "a little counter to common thought."

"The expectation is that there should have been a clear decline, that there should never have been a time where the older pilots did better in terms of their performance [than the younger pilots], but they did," he said.

"This is one of those times where age and experience does impart something that gives you extra help to level the playing field," Sirven said. "You may not be as fast, but this crystallized intelligence gives an extra advantage. Age gives you wisdom that makes up for the slowing of other skills."

Taylor's goal, she said, is to replace strict age-based retirement cutoffs in favor of competency-based criteria.

"Wouldn't it be great if we could come up with a 'functional age'? Instead of saying, 'you're 60, you can't fly,' to use different neurological assessments and training programs to assess them. That's what we all really want," she said.

Such methods could be used across a variety of professions, she noted, from bus drivers to surgeons. Taylor's team is now enrolling a new study to check the reproducibility of these findings over the longer term.

More information

For more information on aging, visit the National Institute on Aging.

SOURCES: Joy L. Taylor, Ph.D., assistant director, Stanford/VA Aging Clinical Research Center, Palo Alto, Calif; Joseph Sirven, M.D., associate professor, neurology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Phoenix; Feb. 27, 2007, Neurology

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