Diving for Seniors
By Fred Bove, M.D., Ph.D.
The inevitability of aging ultimately becomes apparent to divers. As time goes on, we need to consider the changes that occur and modify our diving to accommodate reduced physical conditioning, development of chronic illness and less mobility of muscles and joints. Some scientists suggest the risk of decompression sickness increases in older divers. The increased incidence of heart disease in older individuals should also suggest caution in divers who are more than 50. While there are some limitations to diving in older individuals, there are many divers above the age of 60 who are diving safely.
The body systems that change with age and are of direct concern to divers are the central nervous system, the lungs, the heart and the musculo-skeletal system.
Changes in the central nervous system that can affect diving performance have mostly to do with a generalized slowing of reflexes and fine muscle coordination. These changes are usually of little consequence in sport diving but should be considered when planning dives that may require intense physical exertion.
The oxygen transport capacity of the lungs may be reduced with age but the changes are usually not enough to cause evident limitations in sport diving. The increased stiffness of the lungs with age can contribute to limitations of exercise capacity, particularly with increased intensity. This limit is usually not a concern but might compromise safety if extreme exercise is needed to avoid a dangerous diving situation.
The heart and circulation are affected in several ways with age. Disease of blood vessels (atherosclerosis) increases with age. Risk factors that contribute to premature atherosclerosis include cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
In women, the risk of atherosclerosis increases after menopause. Women also are at an increased risk for heart disease over 60.
In men, the risk of heart disease increases at about 50 years of age. If you are in good physical condition and are over 50, you are not likely to have a problem with diving. If you are not in good condition or have one or more of the risk factors mentioned above, you should consider having a physical evaluation, including a stress test, before learning to dive. Disease of blood vessels can also affect arteries to the brain and increase the risk of stroke. Similarly, narrowed arteries in the legs can cause weakening of the legs and limit exercise capacity. As we learn more about the causes of atherosclerosis, it has become possible to reduce its development through control of blood pressure, cholesterol, limiting smoking and avoiding obesity, which can cause diabetes in adults.
Age related changes in muscles and joints have a significant effect on exercise function and flexibility. Stooping, bending, climbing and stretching are all necessary when diving; the reduced flexibility that occurs with aging limits some of these motions. Aging also causes weakening of the bones (osteoporosis). This is particularly true for women, who need estrogen to maintain healthy bones. After meno-pause, there is a progressive reduction in bone strength, until fractures become inevitable. The same phenomenon occurs in men but usually later in life.
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