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Caring for Older Feet

One fact that many people know as an interesting bit of trivia is that the human body has 206 bones in the skeleton. But, there’s a follow up fact that is a bit lesser known. It’s that 52 of those bones, or more than a quarter, are contained in the feet! That makes it one of the most complicated and engineered structures in the body, and it makes sense because they’re literally the foundation on which the entire skeletal system, and the organs, muscles, and other tissues supported by it, rest.

Our feet are complicated structures, by necessity. Not only do they hold us up in a standing position, they also move us forward, absorb impacts, and even send signals to the brain to help us maintain our balance. Under normal conditions, and unless anything goes seriously wrong, we tend to pay little attention to our feet. But even the smallest blister can significantly slow us down. And when our feet are hurting and keeping us down, that can contribute to all sorts of larger, much more serious effects. Foot problems raise the likelihood of weight gain, heart disease, and disability. They make it hard to walk, or even drive, keeping us from participating in our lives.

According to the American Geriatric Society, at least one third of adults over the age of 65 have some sort of foot problem. And podiatrists, the doctors specializing in feet, see more older patients than any other age group. Normal changes due to aging are partly to blame. The fatty pads on the underside of the foot thin out as they do in the rest of the body, and due to skin elasticity changing, arches can flatten out. Skin becomes thinner, joints become stiffer, and toenails can become more brittle. We might even find ourselves going up a shoe size or two. Conditions common to aging can affect our feet as well, osteoporosis, arthritis, poor circulation, and most notably, diabetes.

Common problems you might experience with your feet include:

  • Athlete’s foot, toenail fungus, or other infections, which can flourish in the warm, moist environments of our shoes. Your doctor may recommend medications, improved hygiene, or potentially a procedure
  • Bunions, which is a deformity of the big toe joint. The big toe slants outward at an angle and may become swollen or tender. Your doctor may correct this with special shoe inserts or surgery.
  • Corns and calluses are thick layers of skin caused by friction, notably rubbing against shoes. The body does this to protect sensitive areas, but the thickness of the skin may cause nerve pain. Well-fitted shoes are the best prevention.

In diabetics, nerve damage can cause a loss of sensation in the feet, preventing them from noticing early signs of injury, leading to more serious infections down the road. Older adults suffering from diabetes should take care to inspect and wash their feet regularly, and report to their doctor any changes in their condition right away. Applying lotion can prevent cracks and calluses, as well as making sure to wear comfortable shoes, along with clean and dry socks each day.