Do elite breath-hold divers suffer from mild short-term memory impairments?

Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2018 Mar;43(3):247-251. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2017-0245. Epub 2017 Oct 20.


Repeated apneas are associated with severe hypoxemia that may ultimately lead to loss of consciousness in some breath-hold divers. Despite increasing number of practitioners, the relationship between apnea-induced hypoxia and neurocognitive functions is still poorly understood in the sport of free diving. To shed light onto this phenomenon, we examined the impact of long-term breath-hold diving training on attentional processing, short-term memory, and long-term mnesic and executive functions. Thirty-six men matched for age, height, and weight were separated into the following 3 groups: (i) 12 elite breath-hold divers (EBHD), mean static apnea best time 371 s, 105 months mean apnea experience; (ii) 12 novice breath-hold divers, mean best time 243 s, 8.75 months mean apnea experience; and (iii) 12 physical education students with no breath-hold diving experience; all of these participants performed varied written and computerized neuropsychological tasks. Compared with the 2 other groups, the EBHD group was slower to complete the interference card during a Stroop test (F[1,33] = 4.70, p < 0.05), and presented more errors on the interference card (F[1,33] = 2.96, p < 0.05) and a lower total interference score (F[1,33] = 5.64, p < 0.05). The time to complete the interference card test was positively correlated with maximal static apnea duration (r = 0.73, p < 0.05) and the number of years of breath-hold diving training (r = 0.79, p < 0.001). These findings suggest that breath-hold diving training over several years may cause mild, but persistent, short-term memory impairments.

Keywords: apnea; apnée; breath-hold diving; cognition; hypoxia; hypoxie; mémoire à court terme; plongée en apnée; short-term memory.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Breath Holding*
  • Diving*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / etiology
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests*
  • Young Adult