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September 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Recent Deaths Highlight the Risks for Older Divers

from the September, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the first five months of 2019, five people died in separate diving and snorkeling incidents in the Florida Keys. All but one were over age 55. Their deaths highlight the challenges faced by us divers as we get older.

Scuba diving seems a relaxing experience, but as Ted Clark, associate director for aquatics and scuba diving at Nova South-Eastern University in Four Lauderdale, FL, noted in an interview with Miami radio station WLRN, the sport can be deceptive for recreational divers. "Often these people are returning to a sport they once loved, or they're new to it and crossing it off their bucket list."

The Florida Keys are one of the few places in the world where you can reach a coral reef simply by swimming out a few yards from the shore, but as we get older, we're carrying more baggage, health-wise. Divers Alert Network states the most important medical consideration for all divers and snorkelers is the soundness of their cardiovascular system and lungs, both of which weaken with age. Exertion from swimming through a few waves or battling with a current often leads to exhaustion, no matter how old you are or what shape you are in.

One of the questions doctors might ask you during a medical exam is whether you can climb a flight of stairs without becoming breathless. Consider your response to that, as well as to how well you can breathe during a snorkel or dive. Even if your snorkel is unobstructed, sometimes there's no guarantee you're getting all the oxygen you need. To get a sense of what challenges you'll face in the water, Clark suggests pinching your nose, breathing through a tube, and running up and down a flight of stairs. Quite a few of us can't do that, even without the snorkel.

When it comes to diving or snorkeling, an out-of-shape Millennial might be as at-risk as a Boomer. Clark also suggests two rules-of-thumb for everyone: Be aware of surf conditions and currents, because they often dictate how strenuous the activity will be, and have regular physicals, in which you tell your doctor about any plans you have to snorkel or scuba dive.

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