Diving over 40? Why a medical check-up might save your life.
New Zealand Underwater Interviews Dr Chris Sames, Clinical Director of the Slark Hyperbaric Unit in Auckland, to better understand why a medical check-up could be smartest pre-dive check in the list.
WATER SAFETY NZ DATA COLLATED SINCE 2011 CLEARLY DEMONSTRATES 60% OF ALL FATALITIES IN DIVERS, SPEARFISHERMEN, AND SNORKELERS OCCUR IN THE OVER 40 AGE BRACKET. POOR HEART HEALTH AND INADEQUATE GENERAL FITNESS ARE KNOWN TO BE SIGNIFICANT CAUSES OF THESE DIVER DEATHS.
For leading diving promotion and advocacy body, New Zealand Underwater, this concerning trend motivated the organisation to act more appropriately in addressing issues.
With the resulting Summertime ad campaign winding up, New Zealand Underwater requested time to explore the issue further with a leading diving medical professional, Dr Chris Sames, Clinical Director at the Slark Hyperbaric Unit in Auckland.
Increased risk with age
Dr Sames recognises age as an important factor when considering risk while diving.
“Increasing age is a known risk factor in terms of a person’s ability to cope with an increased physical stress load,” offers Dr Sames. “It is still predominantly a male preoccupation or pastime, and males in the 40-70 year age group are at higher risk of coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.”
The Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) agrees - “Your heart’s capacity to support an elevated blood output decreases with age and with disease. Having a healthy heart is of the utmost importance to your safety while SCUBA diving…” (DAN website) https://www.diversalertnetwork.org/health/heart/how-diving-affects-health
Check your prescription is suitable for diving
Dr Sames recommends recreational divers over 40 have a regular check-up with their doctor at least every five years. It’s also vitally important to communicate your intention to dive. This ensures the doctor is given the opportunity to access and provide you with all the necessary information to make an informed decision should potential issues be apparent.
It’s about managing your risk. For example, some medications could put your heart under undue stress while diving.
“Some medications such as beta blockers or anti-arrhythmics can increase your cardiac risk while diving, so anyone on such medication, or with a known heart condition, should consult their doctor to discuss the risks,” reinforces Dr Sames.
“There would be a lot of people who have high blood pressure but continue diving, and for the majority there’s no reason they shouldn’t. We are all prepared to accept different levels of risk, so a discussion about that risk is worthwhile.”
“Some risks can be managed,” says Dr Sames. “Informing the medical professional allows the opportunity for the prescription of a medication less likely to restrict the heart.”
Both New Zealand Underwater and Dr Sames would like to remind readers to not take a clear physical examination as a ticket to ignore all the other rules of safe diving. Decompression sickness is an issue for all divers breathing compressed air while buddy diving saves lives no matter if its SCUBA, spearfishing, free-diving or snorkel for food that’s your activity of preference.
For more extensive recommendations on best diving practice visit: https://www.nzunderwater.org.nz/safety-training
Get fit, dive safer
The human body undergoes changes when we dive, as explained by Allison Guy in an article on Azula.com. https://www.azula.com/happens-body-freedive-2476355243.html The heart rate slows to conserve oxygen and the lungs compress under the increased pressure. Even experienced divers rarely need to dive below 40 metres. Older divers are well advised to be equally conservative.
Improving general fitness – particularly heart health with a committed cardiovascular workout programme – will improve the ability of your body to cope with the changes to the body during a dive, and help you dive more and for many more years.
The same applies to spearfishermen and snorkellers. Both sports can involve considerable exertion in an environment where even a minor medical event can have fatal consequences.
“If you’re fit, you’re less likely to get into trouble,” says Dr Sames. “Diving is often quite a strenuous thing, and physical exhaustion could spell your doom. That alone is a reason to stay physically fit.”
The New Zealand Underwater Association (NZUA) is running a ‘Get Tested – Fit to Dive’ campaign to promote routine health checks, heart health, and general fitness for divers to make divers aware of their risks and to lower the diver fatality statistics for avoidable deaths in over-40 divers.
“Being uninformed of the medical risks of diving when older or unfit endangers both you and your diving buddy,” says NZUA spokesperson, Jeff Strang. “A medical assessment with a treatment plan that allows for diving is the best course of action for yourself, your friends and your family.”
Snorkelling, freediving, spearfishing and SCUBA diving are rewarding activities in a whole new world of adventure. With divers taking responsibility for their own health, educating and encouraging friends and family to do the same, they can minimise the risks and prevent needless diving deaths in New Zealand.
FOOTNOTE: Divers returning to the sport are encouraged to attend a refresher course, to bring them up to speed before diving again. The two primary facilitators of these courses in New Zealand are:
A list of diving doctors can be found at: https://worksafe.govt.nz/topic-and-industry/occupational-diving/designated-diving-doctors/