How Old is Too Old to Scuba Dive?

Don't let the ailments of getting older keep you out of the water; take charge and make some changes to keep you diving.

Are you going to have to give up your favorite hobby just because you're getting up in years? Maybe you are too old to learn to dive, even though you have wanted to for years.  These are questions that you may have asked yourself or wondered about a fellow diver.  While scuba does require a certain level of health and fitness, your age doesn't prevent you from becoming an excellent diver.

As more and more, parents reach maturity, unlike their fathers or mothers before them, they are not sitting home on the couch during retirement.  This generation is not only the largest in the world's history, but it has also been the most active. 

I remember watching Loyd Bridges in Sea Hunt and then sneeking off to scuba class because my parents thought is was a dangerous sport and certainly not something a girl should do.  We use to have to spit in our masks!  If you have always wanted to try diving, it is never too late to start, no matter what your age!

Heavy Equipment

  • You don't have to carry all of your equipment at once.  Be a smarter diver.
  • Purchase a rolling mesh bag to use on the dive boat.  This will eliminate your having to carry heavy equipment to the rinse tank.
  • Make more than one trip if you need to.
  • Take your equipment off in the water and hand it up to the divemaster.  Let him know ahead of time to expect you to do this and they will be willing to help.

Decreasing Strength
As we get older it's likely that we will experience a reduction in strength. Thankfully once underwater the natural buoyancy of the human body makes physical strength less of a necessity. However, strength is still a big factor while on land carrying all of your scuba gear or fighting a current. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance from your instructor, dive buddy or other fellow divers while getting in or out of the water, putting on your scuba equipment or walking while loaded down with heavy gear. Asking for help may hurt your pride, but taking an unnecessary fall could bring a premature end to your beloved hobby.

The best thing you can do to counteract decreasing strength that comes with getting older would be to start doing some exercises for scuba diving. A good scuba workout routine should help you maintain plenty ofstrength to ensure many more years of great dives.

Diving Accidents happen because there are people that are not aware of the safety precautions needed before and during a dive.  The majority of all the accidents that happen during a dive is due to the fact that many people dive without proper certification or knowledge about the equipment that they use.  Many people are so arrogant that they do not want to listen to their instructors or divemasters.

  • Stay away from dives with stronger currents if the additional effort will be too much for you.  Know your limits!
  • If you need to take more time to suit up, start earlier so you will be ready to jump in and not hold up the others.

Physical Fitness
According to DAN, as long as divers remain healthy, the gradual decline in pulmonary function that is a normal part of the aging process is not large enough to keep you out of the water.

Using Duke's research hyperbaric chambers, the researchers simulated dives at a depth of 60 feet while taking complex measurements of the levels of gases in the bloodstream of both younger and older participants, at rest and during exertion. Specifically, the researchers sought to determine the effect of age on the body's ability to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels under the water pressures experienced during normal dives.

“Because this is the largest study of its kind, and the fact that with the hyperbaric chamber we were able to have rigorous control over multiple physiological variables, the results of this study should help older divers feel confident about diving."

The researchers point out that they were studying the effects of carbon dioxide retention in divers, and not decompression sickness.   Carbon dioxide retention is a major safety issue for divers, particularly during heavy exertion and with high breathing resistance either from the regulator or due to lung disease. Carbon dioxide retention can cause mental confusion, seizures and, in extreme instances, can lead to loss of consciousness while diving.

"The results of this study should provide reassurances that, from the point of view of the lungs, diving is safe for older divers," said Richard Moon, M.D., senior member of the team and clinical director of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology. "Even while exercising, the older group performed very similarly in all measures as the young people. It was a real shock to find that they did just as well as the younger participants."

They then measured on an ergometer what is known as physiological dead space of all participants at rest and at two levels of exercise, at both normal pressure and a pressure seen during dives of 60 feet which are common among recreational divers.

Dead space is that part of the air inhaled in each breath that does not result in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Earlier studies at Duke have shown that increasing dead space contributes to high levels of hypercapnia, or increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

"We know that, in general, the dead space increases with age, so the major question was whether or not diving at a depth of 60 feet would lead to increased carbon dioxide levels," Frederick explained.

"When compared to the young group, the older group did experience slightly higher dead space under all conditions, though this increase was not associated with an increase in arterial carbon dioxide," Frederick said. "The excellent performance of the older group on every other measure of lung function and exercise ability make it unlikely that older divers in good health would experience significantly greater increases in carbon dioxide at depths."

  • Check with your doctor or DAN if your health changes, just to make sure you can dive safely.

Possible Increased Risk of Decompression Sickness
Decompression Theory studies the effects of Nitrogen absorption in various theoretical tissue compartments. Unfortunately there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to the reality of decompression sickness. For that reason it would be prudent to be more conservative with your dive plans as you get older. The cautious approach would be to plan your bottom times based on a deeper dive than your actual planned dive, or increase your group letter for a multi dive plan. Definitely avoid pushing your no decompression limits, better safe than sorry.

Visual Impairment

It is fairly common to experience reduced visual acuity, especially near field vision, as we age. Reduced ability to focus on nearby objects presents a significant problem for scuba divers. When underwater most of the features you'll be exploring will be up close and personal, so you may not be able to get as much enjoyment out of the diving experience if your vision is impaired. Even worse, you may not be able to read your gauges underwater which would make for a potentially life threatening situation!Fortunately there are solutions which address vision problems, not only for aging scuba divers, but for any scuba diver with bad vision.  Prescription masks are now available to make sure you can enjoy your dive.

New experiences, travel opportunities, and relaxation make scuba an ideal recreation for active, healthy seniors to enjoy.  Modern equipment, training and convenience offered by today's PADI Dive Instructors have opened scuba diving to virtually anyone with good health.

If you have not been diving for a while remember, things have changed, and for the better.  This is not the good ol days.  ReActivate course is a great way for certified senior divers to tune their skills before heading off to enjoy their retirement on a dive vacation.

There are also opportunities for seniors who have no wish to pursue scuba certification or just want to get a taste of what it's like.  PADI offers a experience program such as Discover Scuba for those who would like to give it a try. 

If you are already certified consider taking a continuing education or specialty course.  It is a great way to keep your skills current and learn new skills while increasing your comfort.  Park your ego at the door.  More than likely you will be taking dive classes from someone who is younger than you but remember, your instructor or divemaster sincerely wants you to experience all the joy of diving while remaining safe.