We may focus more on our bodies above the ankles while we’re young, but as time goes on, our feet become a lot more important. There’s nothing worse than walking around on sore feet, and seniors are just naturally prone to foot ailments.
“I find that seniors’ most common complaints are bunions or hammertoes that have been untreated for some time,” says Dr. John Holtzman, a podiatrist with Missouri Foot and Ankle at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center. Fungal infections of the nails, dry skin and arthritis also appear more in older patients.
Holtzman takes a conservative approach in treating these common complaints. “Shoes should have wide toe boxes and be made of soft leather. A soft, over-the-counter orthotic also may help with some types of deformities. And it’s important to go to a shoe store where knowledgeable staff properly measure the feet.”
Dr. Anna DeSaix, a podiatrist with Ankle and Foot Surgeons of the Midwest, agrees. “As we get older, the fat pads in our feet become thinner,” she says. “This can lead to increased trauma and inflamation of the structures that are normally protected by the fat pads, such as the metatarsal heads (the ball of the foot). Stress fractures can also occur in the bones of the feet, especially in patients with osteoporosis. Fortunately these problems can usually be avoided by wearing supportive shoes at all times.”
As our feet age, the musculoskeletal structures become more fragile, and the feet become more susceptible to these types of problems. “Skin is thinner and more easily compromised; bones are not as strong and break more easily,” DeSaix says. “Therefore, protecting one’s foot with a good walking or athletic shoe is the most important thing a senior can do to decrease the risk of injuries or pain.”
Periodically checking your feet is a good habit for older adults, she adds. “Feeling can decrease in our feet as we get older, so one might not always be able to feel if an injury has occurred. Looking at your feet on a daily basis to make sure no sores or bumps have developed is a good habit to get into. If there are any changes, such as increased pain, swelling or redness, one should seek evaluation and treatment by a podiatrist.”
Older people also may develop systemic conditions like diabetes or vascular disease that cause problems in the extremities. Peripheral neuropathy, which can be a symptom of diabetes, causes loss of sensation in the feet and can affect walking and balance, making falls more likely, points out Dr. John Dailey, a podiatrist with The Missouri Foot & Ankle Institute in Washington, Mo. Circulatory problems also can cause injuries to become ulcerated and painful because an inadequate blood supply slows healing.
“Usually, older patients see me when a problem has occurred, but preventive care would be better,” Dailey says. “Billions of dollars were spent last year on treating conditions of the lower extremities as a result of diabetes. Good preventive care could save money and help people avoid pain and suffering.”
Dailey’s preventive regimen includes regular podiatric check-ups. “I suggest everyone see a podiatrist for a preventive exam, just like you would see your primary-care physician on a regular basis,” he says. “Those who have health conditions should be checked twice a year. We may take X-rays, examine how you walk and make sure you’re wearing appropriate shoes.”
Dailey also cautions against home remedies for foot problems. For instance, trying to shave away a callous can lead to infection. Medicated pads are not a good idea, either. “They often cause infections, and they only pad the area without fixing the cause of the problem. That’s what’s really needed,” he says.
The pros all agree, the most important thing to remember is: Take care of your feet, and they’ll take care of you.