People of all ages can engaged in sport diving. To ensure safety, however, the elderly and young people are advised to consider factors such as their capacity for physical exercise, emotional maturity, strength and ability to learn before engaging in diving activities.
Because sport diving has become an acceptable and safe recreation for a large segment of the population, questions often arise about the upper and lower age limits for diving. Although age limitations are prescribed for commercial and military divers, no formal limitations are imposed on the sport diver. There are people under the age of 10 and above the age of 75 who participate in scuba diving. Limitations for the young end for the elderly require different considerations but age alone is not a contraindication.
Although there has been a trend toward increased physical activity in older individuals, the majority of elderly people do not exercise adequately and are often discouraged from participating in regular exercise. Good physical condition is an important component of diving safety. Because physical activity by older individuals is often reduced, most elderly divers are not capable of sustaining the exercise work load of younger individuals.
The measure of oxygen uptake during peak exercise provides an excellent indicator of physical conditioning and work capacity. Many studies have shown that the maximum oxygen uptake declines after age 30, even in well-conditioned individuals. Although this decline seems to be inevitable, a program of physical activity has been found to reduce this decline. Loss of physical work capacity is not only age related but is also owing to inactivity or detraining. In elderly divers, conditioning programs are essential for safe diving. Studies in experimental animals and in humans indicate that a small reduction in the pumping capacity of the heart and reduced heart rate response to exercise also occur in the elderly.
Some clinical studies suggest that older divers may experience more breathing difficulty than younger divers. Reflexes are a bit slower and, in some people, joints are stiffer because of arthritis. Elderly divers should not be expected to perform equally with younger divers. Elderly individuals will experience a greater amount of stress when exercising in comparison to younger individuals.
Some scientists suggest that older divers are more susceptible to decompression sickness but this has not been proven. Heat and cold tolerance, however, may be reduced. The risk of hypothermia is therefore greater. The increase in stiffness of joints and tendons with associated reduction in range of motion should also be accounted for. Physical capacity must be determined and limitations, owing to chronic illness or detraining, should prohibit diving.
Safe diving programs can be provided for the elderly. Elderly diving candidates should have an exercise test with electro-cardiogram and blood pressure monitoring. With careful evaluation, an elderly individual in good health can be given clearance for diving.
Diving In The Young
Medical considerations for young divers are directed toward emotional maturity, ability to learn and understand the physiologic, physical and environmental information needed for safe diving and toward strength requirements necessary for handling diving equipment. In commercial and military diving, the lower age limit is 19 years. Most training organizations require candidates to be 15 years old for full certification. Although diving with supervision has been done safely in children as young as seven, the maturity and knowledge for safe diving are greater in the early teens.
Equipment must be properly fitted to the young diver. Wetsuits, buoyancy compensators and tanks designed for adults are difficult to manage and may be unsafe. Although poor physical condition is less common in the young, divers who are poorly conditioned have increased risk of accident or injury. Also, exercise capacity is not fully developed until about age 30. As in the elderly, the young diver is best trained with a group of peers, to avoid stress produced by keeping up with older and more physically capable divers.
There is no evidence that diving will cause problems with bone or any other organ development in children. There are many divers who began their diving careers at age 10 or 12. There have been no reports of problems when these divers reached adulthood.