Pensioners living life on the edge

Extreme sports are claiming the interest – and increasingly the lives – of a growing number of over-70s
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The number of pensioners injuring themselves while doing extreme sports has more than tripled in the past three years, according to an adventure sports insurer.

While scuba diving, mountaineering and surfing are more usually associated with fizzy-drink-swilling teenagers and 20-somethings, they have seen a mass influx of baby boomers and their parents. Now insurers and adventure specialists are reporting a dramatic rise in injuries, serious incidents and fatalities among those of retirement age taking part in dangerous sports.

Britons aged 70 or over generated nearly a fifth – 17 per cent – of all injury claims last year resulting from sports such as diving, mountaineering and skiing, compared to just 5 per cent in 2006, according to a specialist insurer.

Perkins Slade, which insures adventure groups such as the British Mountaineering Council and British Aqua Club, said that the high proportion of claims came despite the fact that over-70s made up just 5 per cent of their clients.

More than a third of the 212 people in British scuba diving incidents requiring medical treatment last year were over 50, according to figures released by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The agency says that both the number of incidents and the proportion of victims over 50 has "significantly increased" in comparison with previous years.

"There has been an abnormally high number of injuries and fatalities among the over-50s this year," said Brian Cumming, safety adviser for the British Sub Aqua Club. "It's not unique to diving; all activity sports are seeing similar problems. Typically it's a heart attack or a stroke."

Richard Doubleday, director of Sport at Perkins Slade, said: "We've seen a big increase in the number of older people in accidents – there was a time when the over 70s made up as little as 2 per cent of our claims. There's no doubt that the statistical evidence is there that the older you are the more risk you present. I think [overall] the population is genuinely getting fitter and healthier, but after 70 we've got statistics which show that the incidence of accidents increases sharply."

The rise comes as more and more Britons take up or continue high- adrenaline pursuits into retirement.

According to the website, the proportion of over-50 visitors to the site interested in going on an extreme holiday rose by 18 per cent between 2008 and 2009. The three most popular sports holidays chosen from the site by those aged 50 and over were skiing, surfing and cycling.

Tom Harrison, 73, is one of many in his generation who are happy to accept the accidents that come with greater risk-taking. The adventure sports enthusiast, who works in an outdoor shop, recently took up mountain biking and ended up with a broken rib.

"I've had my fair share of accidents. I managed to come off my bike backwards and hit a tree not long ago. I broke a rib, so that was pretty painful, but it's all fun." It's not just on his bike that Mr Harrison has had bad luck, however. "I do a lot of fell-running and marathons. I crashed over doing sprint training in the dark, cut open my head and had to have five stitches. Just three months later I was back in A&E having done the same thing. They reminded me I didn't get a volume discount."

Like many of his contemporaries who are prepared to take risks at an age when their parents' generation might have preferred to reach for a pipe and slippers, Mr Harrison says the stitches and broken bones will not deter him.

"As you get older your balance isn't the same when you go downhill, so when it's a grassy slope you slow down a bit, but I'm not going to stop running. I belong to a fell-running club so I still go all the time. I'm very creaky and arthritic, but otherwise fine and I've raised over £10,000 in 10 years for Help the Aged doing all these things. I have packed up running at night on rough ground as my eyesight has deteriorated a bit, but it hasn't occurred to me to give up. I'm running in the London Marathon next week."

Ken Bazeley, national scuba diving officer for the MCA, said that older people wanting to take part in high-risk sports such as diving should simply make sure they have done the right health checks. "In general the population are living longer, are fitter and have more disposable income, so it is no surprise that we are diving longer into retirement age. But this does bring some risks, and divers should be aware they are not invulnerable and a health check would be advisable."

Dr David Spiegelhalter, a risk statistician at Cambridge University – and himself a keen mountaineer – said that the increase in incidents should not put off those wanting to be adventurous as they get older.

"I'm 56 and I've just booked my third 20,000ft peak this summer. I think it's completely rational for people to do more dangerous things as they get older. Your natural background risk of dying is greater anyway, and you've done your bit, so why not go out in glory?"