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Pilots and cataracts


Pilots and cataracts

Are airline pilots (and astronauts, for that matter) at higher risk of developing cataracts? A study suggests this may be true.1 Researchers in Iceland have found that commercial pilots were 3 times more likely than the average person to develop cataracts, leading to the need for cataract surgery.

The cross-sectional study involved 445 men aged 50 and over. Of these men, 71 had a type of cataract called a nuclear cataract, and the remaining 374 had no history of cataracts or other eye disorders. Among these men, 79 were commercial pilots.

After comparing the rates of cataract with the occupation of the participant, pilots were found to have a higher disposition to developing cataracts than non-pilots. Researchers believe that this is because of their higher levels of exposure to cosmic radiation, the harmful UV rays of the sun. On the surface of the Earth, these rays do not pose much of a threat – however, in mile-high professions such as pilots and astronauts, exposure to these rays is much greater.

Cosmic radiation can lead to mutations in genes and has also been linked to the development and growth of certain cancers. Dr Larry Benjamin from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists suggests that cosmic radiation “damages cell repair mechanisms and probably also causes the protein in the lens to crosslink”.

Cataract surgery

Of course, a cataract would not spell the end of the career of a pilot – cataract surgery is one of the most common and most successful surgical procedures in the world. Recent technology has also seen the introduction of laser cataract surgery, which uses laser technology to perform the first three steps of the procedure. In some situations, laser cataract surgery can makes what is already a safe procedure even safer.

Good news for pilots, astronauts and everyone else on terra firma.



  1. Rafnsson V, Olafsdottir E, Hrafnkelsson J et al. Cosmic radiation increases the risk of nuclear cataract in airline pilots: a population-based case-control study. Arch Ophthalmol 2005;123(8):1102–05.

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