A high-flying health concern

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon refueling over Iraq in 2010. The plane can fly at altitudes of more than 50,000 feet, high enough to put pilots at increased risk for brain lesions. [Image credit: Flickr user U.S. Air Force]

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon refueling over Iraq in 2010. The plane can fly at altitudes of more than 50,000 feet, high enough to put pilots at increased risk for brain lesions. [Image credit: Flickr user U.S. Air Force]

Eric Wilson was flying an F18 fighter jet at 28,000 feet when he heard a loud bang, and everything went silent. The jet had lost all cabin pressure, immediately subjecting the U.S. Marine’s body to an onslaught of altitude induced issues. He only had about 60 seconds to descend below 10,000 feet or he would have passed out, and possibly crash landed.

When forced to make an emergency descent, Wilson said pilots are grounded for at least 24 hours in case they have decompression sickness, which can cause joint pain, headaches and other problems. Those effects can be permanent unless quickly treated. Commonly called “the bends,” the same illness can afflict deep-sea divers if they return to the surface too quickly.

For military pilots flying thousands of feet above the clouds with the air too thin to breathe, not all the risks are as obvious as enemy fire, mechanical breakdowns or decompression sickness. Researchers are now zeroing in on a more subtle neurological concern altitude may cause: brain lesions. …

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