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FAA Targets Overweight Pilots for Sleep Apnea

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is on the lookout for pilots with size 17 necks and bigger, concluding that being overweight is a sure path to sleep apnea, which is characterized by interrupted sleep leading to fatigue in the daytime.

Shirt size, of course, isn’t the main criterion, but an indicator. What the FAA will be looking for when it comes time to renew pilots’ medical certifications is a body mass of 40 or greater, which is considered morbidly obese. When a pilot meets that standard, he or she will be forced to undergo a sleep test to determine if apnea is a problem.

About 125,000 commercial and private pilots could be affected by the new requirement. Air traffic controllers will be included in the program in the future, the FAA indicated.

“OSA [obstructive sleep apnea] is almost universal in obese individuals who have a body mass index over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more, but up to 30% of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA,” wrote Fred Tilton, M.D., the Federal Air Surgeon, in announcing the policy.

“Untreated OSA is a disqualifying condition for airmen and air traffic control specialists (ATCSs), and it is a concern for the other modes of the Department of Transportation. It has also been a hot issue at the National Transportation Safety Board for several years,” he explained.

The testing program was spurred in part by a recent incident in which two pilots fell asleep and missed their landing in Hawaii on an inter-island flight. The captain was obese.

Even if you’re not a pilot, sleep apnea can be a great detriment to your functioning daily life, causing fatigue, loss of concentration, under-performance and other issues. If you have a chronic snoring problem or suspect you have sleep apnea — or even if you just feel fatigued every day — you should seek out a sleep specialist for an evaluation and treatment immediately.

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