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Ask a Maui Doctor: What are the Risks of Snorkeling Over the Age of 50?

June 24, 2017, 9:00 AM HST · Updated June 25, 10:01 AM
Nikki Schenfeld · 23 Comments
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Doctors at Minit Medical answer some of the questions submitted by readers.

Snorkeler. Maui Now Stock Photo

Each week, a doctor from Minit Medical Kahului or Lahaina will answer questions that have been submitted by readers. Submit your own medical related questions to our doctors at askthedoctor@mauinow.com.

Questions submitted will be considered for inclusion in the “Ask a Maui Doctor” column.

Q: There have been numerous reports recently of older people snorkeling and being found unresponsive at beaches around Maui. Are there risks for snorkeling over 50 years old?

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A: The majority of snorkeling deaths or emergencies in persons above age 50 are due to cardiac arrest, usually from a heart attack. While snorkeling may seem like a fun and relaxing activity that does not require a high level of fitness ability, in reality it can place a significantly increased workload on the heart.

Aside from the obvious physical exertion required to swim, the lungs and in turn the heart, receive a slightly decreased amount of oxygen while breathing through the snorkel tube. While snorkeling, it is easy for swimmers to become panicked either from swallowing water, not getting enough air, or simply from fear due to strong currents or waves.

Panic causes release of adrenaline, or epinephrine, which further increases heart rate and constricts blood vessels. The combination of all of these factors places a significantly increased workload upon the heart and can result in a heart attack from lack of oxygen to a certain part of the heart muscle. If the heart attack involves too much of the heart muscle, it may result in cardiac arrest and death.

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While this may sound scary, people over 50 can still snorkel but should take a few extra precautions: They should visit with their primary physician or cardiologist to discuss their coronary risk factors and discuss if further testing such as an EKG and cardiac stress test is needed to identify and existing heart problems before increasing strain on the heart during snorkeling or other strenuous activities.

Staying healthy by exercising on a weakly basis, not smoking, eating a heart healthy diet, and seeing your regular doctor for cholesterol and diabetes screening are the best ways to prevent a heart attack.

Lastly, if you see somebody that appears unresponsive or struggling in the water call 911 and try to get help to remove them from the water as soon as possible and start CPR by giving them chest compressions at a rate of 80-100 compressions/minutes until emergency medical responders arrive.

Similar Incidents:

On Monday, June 19, a 66-year-old California man was found unresponsive at Hulopo‘e Beach on Lāna‘i and last Sunday, June 18, a 68-year-old California man was pulled from the waters at Nāpili Point after snorkeling.

Five similar incidents have happened since Jan. 1, 2017. On June 7, a 58-year-old visitor from North Carolina was found floating unresponsive at Wailea Beach; on May 8, an 81-year-old California visitor was snorkeling with a family member when he was found face-down and unresponsive in the water at Nāpili Bay; on April 15, a Maui man in his late 50s was pulled from the water at “Camp One” beach in Spreckelsville; on March 29, a 72-year-old female visitor from Minnesota was pulled from the waters at Kapalua Bay after snorkeling with another family member and on Feb. 9, a 64-year-old woman died at Kapalua Bay after she was pulled from the water.

 

Nikki Schenfeld
Nikki joined the Maui Now team in 2016 as a writer/reporter. Originally from Chicago, she has had internships with CBS2 Chicago and Comcast SportsNet Chicago where she had the opportunity to interview some of Chicago's best athletes. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in 2010 with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism. She moved to Maui in 2013.

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