From 2005 to 2009, an average of 3,533 unintentional and fatal drownings occurred annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This amounts to nearly 10 deaths per day, excluding boating-related incidents in which an additional 347 people died each year. The people most at risk? Males.

Nearly 80 percent of people who die from drowning are male. It is also meaningful to note that between 2005 and 2009, the drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than the rate for European Americans. Although consistent across all age ranges within those groups, the disparity is widest among children five to 14 years old; the fatal drowning rate of black children is almost three times that of white children in the same group. Even in nonfatal incidents, brain damage may result and with such damage, there may be long-term health complications, such as memory loss or learning disabilities.

Overall, then, about one in five drowning deaths involve children who are 14 years old or younger. Although children are clearly a priority who require our protection, another story lies beneath the surface of these statistics; of the many deaths by drowning each day, eight involve people who are 14 years or older. Adults, then, need to consider how to prevent a potentially fatal accident for themselves.

The Details

Age is tightly associated with how and where a person drowns. For example, most children under four years old drown in their home swimming pools. As people grow older, the possibility of drowning in a natural water setting, such as a lake, river, or ocean, increases. More than half (in fact, 57 percent) of fatal and nonfatal drownings occur in a natural water setting for those who are 15 years or older.

Not only do people of different ages drown in different locations, they also drown for different reasons. For example, among those who have a seizure disorder, the bathtub is the site of highest drowning risk, and drowning is the most common cause of unintentional death. Among adolescents and adults, alcohol use is involved in up to 70 percent of deaths associated with water recreation. Not only does alcohol significantly influence balance, coordination, and judgment, but its effects are heightened by sun exposure and heat.

Of course, another question is: how many people know how to swim? The CDC finds that self-reported ability to swim increased with level of education. Among racial groups, African Americans reported the most limited swimming ability and younger adults reported greater swimming ability than older adults. Oddly, men of all ages, races, and educational levels consistently reported greater swimming ability than women. Because this appears to fly in the face of the actual drowning statistics (since males are much more likely to drown than females), is there a possibility that men feel more embarrassed than women to report they cannot swim?

Fear of Learning

In a world where Andy Warhol's pronouncement about everyone having "fifteen minutes of fame" has become a reality — or at least a reality TV show — any 'psychology of embarrassment' seems laughable, if not perfectly irrelevant. Doesn't everyone feel free to divulge whatever secret they wish? Whether on talk radio or Facebook, all manner of people are unembarrassed to publicly air all that previous generations carefully hid from public view.

Learning, though, may be a very different matter especially for adults. In the non-self-conscious state of childhood, it is easy to absorb lessons as there is no embarrassment in not knowing. Conversely, in the self-conscious state that is adulthood, education seems to come at a price as adult learners risk more than their child-aged counterparts. Learning to swim as an adult not only involves an admission of not knowing but also the potential for public shame as the only way to learn is in public.

What could be more embarrassing?

And yet, nothing is less so. Swimming, after all, is not primarily about 'ignorance' as it is about being comfortable in water. "Being able to master the water as a medium is essential to the human spirit, the physical being and life," said Adrian Ginju, former member of the Romanian Olympic Swim Team and swimming instructor. "One acquires discipline, coordination, balance and harmony." An adult swim class, as run by a certified trainer, will naturally address adult fears and adult confidence while also providing an atmosphere of mutual respect.

In a study examining learning environments, researchers concluded that educators of adults must establish an emotionally safe environment so that students could constructively address their fears. In other words, an educator needs to first empower their students as a way to enable an adult learner to risk change. The heart of the matter, then, is change. To make a simple change in order to place yourself less at risk of an accidental death may be a point of pride, not embarrassment, for an adult. Best of all, you would be discovering the joys of an activity that dates back to... prehistory.

Swimming Through Time

Although historians cannot determine the exact year when swimming originated, swimmers appear in artwork on Egyptian tombs, in Assyrian stone carvings, in Hittite and Minoan drawings, and in Toltec murals. Plato believed that a man who could not swim was uneducated, and Julius Caesar was reported by his contemporaries to be a strong swimmer. Having developed their swimming style independently, natives of the Americas, West Africa, and some Pacific Islands preferred variations of the crawl.

When, in 1844, a group of American Indians was invited to London to compete, Europeans viewed this new stroke for the first time. Although impressed with the natives' speed, the British considered their style 'uncivilized.' Less than 30 years later, British swimmers began to combine the native techniques with their own. It is interesting to note that the first American swimmer to achieve national fame was a native Hawaiian, Duke Kahanamoku, who won three gold medals and two silvers in the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympics.

Source: Sappington TE. Creating learning environments conducive to change: The role of fear/safety in the adult learning process. Innovative Higher Learning. 1984.