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Can you be too old to scuba dive?



Q: While holidaying with my daughter and grandchildren in the Maldives I was given the opportunity to dive. I had only ever snorkelled previously and scuba diving was a revelation. But at the ripe old age of 63 how many years of this wonderful sport do I have left?

A: Potentially plenty. Some years ago, the-then 72-year-old Donald Sutherland, bearded bloodhound in human form, had to learn to dive for his latest flick. Apparently he was taken ill with chest pains during a break, and began coughing up blood. After much diagnostic confusion (including being mistakenly labelled with lung cancer), a clued-up physician finally twigged that the blood was due to a fragile lung vessel which had leaked during a dive. The point of this arduous preamble is that he was then told by this ‘specialist’ that he shouldn’t have been diving past the age of 50. Utter BS. Why on earth not? Admittedly, anno domini wreaks its mischief on us all in terms of declining strength and agility, but to designate an age past which diving is unsafe is ludicrous. In these days of political correctness and disability discrimination, the onus is on us docs to justify why someone shouldn’t dive.

There are some considerations – older divers are more prone to hypothermia as they generally have less fat tissue and a slower metabolism.

Also, a higher proportion will have chronic problems, such as lung or heart disease, which need to be managed appropriately, and with medications that are sanctioned safe for diving. But we all age in time to our individual genetic clocks, and I know several divers in their 60s and 70s who are far fitter than numerous younger lardballs. Their wealth of life experience makes them far safer than your average anxious 18-year-old novice. So it’s two fingers up at Father Time, all you over-50s divers – get some new fins and jump in.

Q: I hope you can help with my query. As a child I was diagnosed with curvature of the spine (scoliosis). It did not affect me much in terms of activities – I could still participate in sports and it was not painful. The worst thing I remember is being made fun of at school for having jutting out ribs on one side. But as a teenager it seemed to get worse, so I ended up having surgery where some of my spine was fused together. I have always wanted to take up diving but have heard that scoliosis (and the surgery for it) can cause lung problems. Would this affect my ability to dive?

A: The list of eminent humans with scoliosis is long and surprising. The tortured soul of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the band Nirvana, was partly due to a scoliosis which caused him severe back pain every time he picked up a guitar. A fellow twisted sister is Sarah Michelle Gellar, aka Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Perhaps most unexpected is that the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, was born with a scoliosis. It doesn’t seem to have done him much harm.

The extent of the curvature varies considerably in scoliosis, and some cases are so severe that the chest wall becomes distorted. This can result in an abnormal chest cavity, reducing the space available to the lungs for expansion. In extreme cases this could cause obstruction to the expanding gas on ascent from a dive, leading to pulmonary barotrauma and lung collapse. Imaging studies such as chest X-rays or CT scans of the chest would be needed to assess this risk.

Awkward lifting of tanks and weights can easily cause spinal injuries, and a pre-existing scoliosis might increase this risk. The exit up a boat ladder in a good-going swell while kitted up with twin-12s is one to avoid. However, with enough planning and avoidance of scenarios like this, the di culties should recede in the relatively gravity-free environment of the water.

Stock image by Simon Wijers

Also do read if you Can go hang-gliding after a dive?

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Picture of Mark Evans
Mark Evans
Scuba Diver's Editorial Director Mark Evans has been in the diving industry for nearly 25 years, and has been diving since he was just 12 years old. nearly 40-odd years later and he is still addicted to the underwater world.
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