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Heart Health and Diving

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Heart health is very important in scuba diving

Courtesy Divers Alert Network (DAN)

It may not seem like it at times, but your cardiovascular health is absolutely critical to your safety as a diver. Diving may not require a high level of fitness in all conditions, but preexisting heart problems combined with immersion can dramatically increase your risk of both diving and non-diving injuries. Your heart health can cause myriad medical maladies and spark diving incidents or render you incapacitated underwater. With nearly one-third of diving fatalities associated with cardiac events, it’s critical that you know the risk factors.

Hypertension

High blood pressure affects almost a third of adult Americans and was considered to be a contributing factor in 410,000 American deaths in 2014 alone. Hypertension directly increases your risk of heart attack, stroke and chronic heart failure, and the stressors of diving can exacerbate some of the risk factors for these conditions. While mild hypertension can usually be controlled with diet and exercise, medication may be required to treat more serious cases. Divers should be aware of the dehydrating effects of some common medications used to treat hypertension; these can modify several diving-related risk factors and increase the risk of DCS in some circumstances.

Hyperlipidemia

High cholesterol effects an enormous number of American adults, and it can directly contribute to a diver’s risk of death or injury during a dive. The condition increases an individual’s risk of arterial diseases, heart attack and stroke, and it can contribute to the stiffening or partial blockage of arteries through a buildup of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a form of cholesterol. This buildup contributes to hypertension and can impede the flow of blood to the heart, brain and other organs. You should have your cholesterol checked every four to six year, and consult with your healthcare providers to determine your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. 

Obesity

Obesity is a risk factor for many heart conditions that is sometimes overlooked. While there are no firm figures on the number of obese divers, fully 69 percent of adult Americans are either overweight or obese, and there is no data to suggest that the diving population represents an exception to that trend. Obesity involves a decreased capacity for physical work in addition to its cardiac risk factors, and the combination of these elements directly effects a diver’s ability to respond to the rigors of the diving environment. Obesity is frequently associated with hypertension and hyperlipidemia as well as diabetes and several other cardiac-related conditions. The good news is that while these compounding risk factors can be serious, the obesity can most often be treated with diet and exercise in consultation with your healthcare provider. 

For more information on heart health and diving, visit DAN.org/Health.