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Air Travel Risks For Elderly

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As a senior, you have plenty of reasons to fly. Maybe you’re heading out on that dream vacation or traveling to see a loved one. Air travel isn’t the same for you as it was when you were younger, though. Now your body will react differently to the stresses of flying than it did years ago.

Elderly fliers have the following air travel risks:

  • Severe jet lag
  • Bodily pain and discomfort
  • Higher illness risk
  • Dehydration
  • Temporary hearing loss 
  • Hypoxia
  • Cardiac stress
  • Deep vein thrombosis 

Before you or your senior parent or loved one gets on a plane, read this article. It will help you (or them) prepare better so you can fly with fewer difficulties. 

Is Flying Hard On The Elderly?

Age changes one’s body in so many ways, and that includes a person’s flight tolerance. 

According to a Frontiers in Physiology study from 2019 on the subject, the air pressurization changes that occur at a high altitude of even 7,000 to 8,000 feet can affect older adults in a multitude of ways.

If not that, then long flights and exposure to other people put senior travelers at a higher risk of medical issues.

Per the intro, let’s look at the ways how.

Severe Jet Lag

A Washington Post article from 2019 reported data from MIT that correlates age with the severity of jet lag.

In other words, the older an individual, the higher the risk for severe jet lag when changing time zones. 

Jet lag can cause memory and concentration issues (which can be scary for adult children if you’re concerned about your senior developing dementia), reduced sleep quality, difficulty keeping awake during the day, and exhaustion.

Bodily Pain And Discomfort

Airline seats are designed for user comfort, but even still, senior citizens might find themselves with aches and pains from sitting, especially particularly after long-haul flights. 

The discomfort can persist even after exiting the plane, which will make getting around the airport particularly difficult.

Higher Illness Risk

According to travel resource FLIGHTFUD, the average person is at an elevated 10x risk of developing an illness from flying on a plane.

Colds are the most common illness one can pick up, but plenty of people can develop COVID-19. 

Trust me, I know this firsthand, because I got it on the flight home after our trip to Iceland.

I was seated next to teens who were complaining to their parents about how yucky they were feeling. Two days later, I came down with it.

The reason illnesses follow frequent travelers around? You’re stuck in a confined space with hundreds of other strangers for hours.

That doesn’t exactly give you much reprieve from illness-causing germs.

While an illness is a minor inconvenience for most adults, it could be more serious for elderly passengers. 


The elderly are at greater risk of becoming dehydrated more easily compared to younger adults.

A senior might not have access to fluids for hours at a time when flying, or they do, but not in a significant enough quantity to ward off dehydration.

Or, if you’re like me, you don’t drink much because you don’t want to use the plane’s restroom a dozen times before you land.

If you have developed papery skin, sunken eyes, and dry lips and tongue while traveling, you’re dehydrated.

Temporary Hearing Loss 

The National Institutes of Health found that one-third of seniors already have hearing loss. Flying on an airplane can only have more impact hearing issues for the elderly.

Some flyers experience airplane ear, which can cause a degree of hearing loss and ear pain and pressure.

The hearing loss is only temporary and it’s caused by air pressure changes in the airplane cabin, but considering seniors are already at risk for hearing issues, any type of hearing loss can be scary.


A much more severe air travel risk for the elderly is hypoxia, which occurs when the body doesn’t have enough oxygen to maintain homeostasis in the tissue. 

The same team that did the Frontiers in Physiology study found that flying can cause mild hypoxia.

An elderly traveler who already has breathing issues, whether from age or a medical condition, could experience more severe breathing issues on a plane.

Cardiac Stress

In the same study, the researchers found that an altitude of at least 7,000 feet increased one’s cardiovascular risk.

Seniors involved in the study had a decreased heart-rate variability and a higher heart rate. These are indicative of cardiac stress.

Since planes often fly at elevations of at least 35,000 feet over sea level, a senior risk of cardiac stress goes up exponentially, especially if they already have a heart condition.

Deep Vein Thrombosis 

It’s not only that sitting for long periods on a plane can cause bodily pain and discomfort in older people. They also run the potential risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Traveling often includes sitting for periods of time, which can increase your chances of developing a deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a type of blood clot that forms in a large vein. Part of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs, causing a sudden blockage of arteries in the lung, known as a pulmonary embolism.

Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC)

DVT causes blood clots in deep veins such as the arm, pelvis, thigh, or lower leg. The symptoms include swelling and pain in the affected site, although some patients are asymptomatic. 

Per the CDC, to help prevent the risk of blood clots and DVT if you’re flying long distances, it’s a good idea to get up and walk around the aircraft cabin every 2 to 3 hours (the same applies to driving – stop and walk around for a few minutes every couple of hours).

You might also consider wearing compression socks like these. The mild squeezing action promotes blood flow and prevent or reduce swelling and fatigue in your legs and feet.

What Is The Maximum Age To Fly On Airlines?

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA creates rules on aviation in the country. Does the FAA have an upper age limit to fly on an airplane?

Actually there is no maxium age to fly on airlines.. Airline pilots can only fly until they are 65 according to 14 CFR Part 121, but no airline can refuse older travelers entry onto a plane because of their age.

A senior can choose for themselves not to fly on a plane once they reach a certain age, or an adult child or a caretaker can do the same. However, there is no specific age limit. 

What Seat On The Plane Is Best For The Elderly?

If you are traveling with an elderly parent and will be flying, you’ll want to be sure you’re as comfortable as you can be – especially on a cross country flight or for international travel.

On that note, what is the best seat in the house for older people?

The closer to the front that a senior can be when flying on a plane, the better.

Why is that? For several reasons. For one, you won’t have to go as far to get to the bathroom.

Also, seats nearer the front of the plane usually have a little more legroom. You will have the space to stretch out you legs and sit more comfortably.

Of course, it’s not only seniors who enjoy these benefits but any traveler. Therefore, you can expect that seats near the front of the plane will usually be reserved quicker. 

Therefore, if you want to book yourself or a senior family member a seat near the front of the plane, don’t delay.

What Medical Conditions Would Prevent You From Flying?

TIP: Because seniors are more likely to suffer from health conditions of any kind, we highly recommend purchasing travel insurance whenever you travel.

Earlier, we talked about how a senior can fly on a plane at any age. Well, almost any age.

Certain medical conditions can preclude the elderly from flying, regardless of age. Let’s go over these health concerns now.

Heart Conditions

If a senior has a history of cardiovascular disease, including arterial hypertension, heart rhythm or heart rate disorders, chest pain or angina at rest, stroke, recent heart attack, or heart failure, they likely should not go on an airplane.

We recommend speaking to your senior’s healthcare provider and asking for their medical opinion before booking a flight.

Recent Surgeries

If the senior in your life just received surgery, even if it was minor, they shouldn’t be eager to jump on a plane right away. That’s especially true for more serious procedures.

In that case, older travelers should wait up to three months before they fly on any commercial flights.

Infectious Diseases

For the safety of everyone on board, an elderly person who has or very recently had an infectious disease should reconsider flying.

If the senior is serious about flying, even with their infectious disease history, they should wear a face mask. Be aware that they may also need a Fit-to-Fly Certificate.

We’ll talk more about these certificates in the next section. 

Deep Vein Thrombosis 

After learning more about it earlier, it shouldn’t surprise you to see DVT in this section.

Before making up your mind about whether someone with DVT should fly, schedule an appointment with their primary care physician and ask for their thoughts. 

A doctor can review the senior’s current health and circumstances to decide. If they have travel plans that involve a long flight, their health care provider might disapprove of the flight. 

Respiratory Diseases

The high rate of air pressurization and being stuck sharing the same air with other people on a plane for hours means flying may not be safe if a senior has or recently had a respiratory disease.

If they have shortness of breath and are using supplemental oxygen, especially, it can make flying dangerous.


If your senior parent or loved one recently had a mini-stroke or a full stroke, they’re at an elevated risk of developing blood clots and DVT.

Getting on a plane isn’t the safest or smartest idea right after a stroke, but let the senior’s doctor make the final call. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease 

Pressurized air can worsen COPD, especially at certain elevations and plane sizes. An elderly person may find themselves unable to breathe in the less oxygenated air.

Your senior’s doctor will likely recommend skipping long flights if they have COPD.

Fit-To-Fly Certificate For The Elderly: Who Needs One?

As promised, let’s take a deeper look at the Fit-to-Fly Certificate. What exactly is this medical certificate, and who needs it?

A Fit-to-Fly Certificate allows certain flyers entry into various parts of the world, including the United States.

The certificate became a requirement after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. It proves that the holder does not have COVID and that they have tested negative for the condition. 

If required to have this certificate, the traveler must have had a negative test in at least the last 72 hours before their flight, but possibly more recently than that. 

In some parts of the world, in addition to showing a negative COVID test and a Fit-to-Fly certificate, a person may also have to be subject to a physical. 

Some countries do require a minimal physical as well which can include listening to the lungs or similar non-invasive procedure.

It’s up to the airlines to require Fit-to-Fly Certificates and they’re not exclusive to the elderly. 


The elderly have more air travel risks than the average adult, including hypoxia, DVT, and cardiac stress.

As with anything, you must know and understand your health risks before getting on a plane and take steps to reduce these risk factors.

If you do fly as an older adult, shorter trips are the way to go, if possible.

When flying, remember to get up frequently to stretch your legs and move your feet ofetn when sitting, to keep blood flowing. Consider wearing compression stockings as well. 

For more travel tips for seniors, go here next.

Or, to learn how seniors can travel cheaply, go here.

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