Jun 6

Too Old To Dive?

By Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson

Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. After a seven month trip teaching around South East Asia, I'm heading back to Africa to explore the incredible dive sites of Tanzania.

Happy mature couple with snorkeling gear

Whether or not scuba diving has a retirement age is the source of much debate, as is the question of whether one can ever be too old to start diving. According to the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN), older divers are defined as those over the age of 50, and in recent decades, these older divers have constituted an increasingly large percentage of the global dive community. Two main factors are responsible: First, those divers who took up scuba in the first flush of its popularity 30 to 40 years ago have aged, and second, today’s older generation is typically wealthier and more active than ever before, and is adopting diving as the pastime of their golden years. I recently conducted a Discover Scuba course for a 70-year-old woman, whose other high-adrenaline goals for her 70th year included bungee jumping and sky-diving. She was enraptured by the underwater world and surfaced determined to pursue her scuba career, a goal that she was easily physically and mentally capable of attaining; indeed, she was one of the most fearless and competent first-time divers I’ve ever encountered.

Seniors who wish to continue diving, having started in their youth, may be safer than many younger divers, precisely because of their experience. Over the years, they will have encountered and learned how to deal with a wide range of problems and scenarios that younger divers have yet to encounter. For these divers, the only potential limitations on a future of diving are physical or mental age-related problems that could hinder underwater safety. Regular medical check-ups ensure a sufficient level of diving fitness, but a medical professional should immediately evaluate symptoms like chest pains, shortness of breath or blurred vision. Similar advice applies to those seniors wanting to take up diving — as long as the student in question has no existing medical conditions that could pose problems in the water, there is no reason not to take the plunge.

Dive courses are designed with a wide spectrum of prospective students in mind, regardless of age, weight, gender or disability. With age comes a higher risk of heart and lung issues, and, like all divers, older students must answer a medical questionnaire before being deemed fit to enroll in a course. These forms have specific sections for mature divers; the PADI Medical Statement, for example, asks those over 45 years old to answer questions regarding cholesterol levels, familial history of heart attack and lifestyle habits.

Whatever your age, acknowledging any of the pre-existing medical conditions detailed on these forms means that you cannot learn to dive without a physician’s written consent; conversely, upon passing the medical questionnaire, you are considered fit to dive no matter how old you are. Similarly, the swim tests that are a component of any entry-level course are designed to establish satisfactory physical fitness. Completing them indicates that an individual (whether they are 19 or 90) is capable of diving.

Many of the reasons experts once advised against diving at an advanced age have since been disproved. For example, doctors previously thought that the general decline of the lungs over time would make older divers less able to cope with pressure changes and breathing compressed air. Particularly, scientists hypothesized that elderly lungs would retain dangerous levels of carbon dioxide. However, studies conducted by Duke University Medical Center showed that older divers did not retain levels of gas that were significantly higher than those in younger test subjects. Many of the problems that once affected senior divers can now be mitigated, too; while age typically slows metabolism and creates susceptibility to hypothermia as a result, this problem can easily be solved with a thicker exposure-protection suit. Similarly, poor vision can be corrected with contact lenses or prescription masks. In fact, diving is increasingly becoming accepted as a healthy form of exercise for seniors, thanks to its low impact and the relief of painful joints granted by the weightlessness of water.

That being said, it is vitally important that all divers, but particularly older ones, maintain responsibility for their own physical fitness. Being fit at the time of certification is one thing, but for new and experienced divers alike, a lapse in physical ability is a danger not only to their own safety but to their buddy’s as well. General health tends to decrease over time, with the heart, lungs and muscles bearing the brunt of the aging process. Blood vessels become stiffer, causing increased blood pressure and a thickened heart muscle. Lungs lose their elasticity, which helps explain why dive theory teaches us that age can heighten the risk of decompression illness. Additionally, while previous heart problems, paralysis or serious surgery do not necessarily preclude a person from diving, those who have suffered such conditions must seek medical advice before enrolling in a course, and should be aware that some medication is not compatible with diving. A recent study that investigated global diving deaths found that 45 percent of fatal accidents in divers over the age of 40 were caused by cardiac problems; in many cases, the victim had been controlling a preexisting condition with medication. Obviously, any decrease in mental capacity that affects a person’s cognitive abilities also renders diving unsafe.

Ultimately, although age carries with it potential health implications that may affect a person’s ability to dive, no one rule applies to all situations. As long as a person is physically fit enough to pass the standard swim tests and medical questionnaires requested of all students, they are capable of learning to dive. Equally, as long as a person maintains the required level of fitness and goes regularly for health check-ups, there is no reason why they should not continue to dive for as long as they wish to do so.

If further proof is needed, we need look no further than the most famous diver of all time — Jacques Cousteau continued to dive until his death at the ripe old age of 87. Age affects everyone differently, which is why when it comes to diving, age really is just a number.

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