Dr. John Scanlon

by Barbara Sherf

We all have experienced changes in our bodies as time marches on, so it’s no surprise that your feet undergo changes with age. Fortunately, taking a few moments to tend to your sole health can minimize age-related issues, according to Chestnut Hill Hospital’s vice president and chief medical officer, podiatrist Dr. John Scanlon.

“The feet are your foundation and absolutely play into your quality of life as we age,” Scanlon said. “If you develop foot issues, it affects you physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Scanlon, who at 61 still plays a pickup basketball game once a week to keep in shape, has had ankle problems as an athlete. While some issues are genetic, he believes being proactive can do a lot to improve your foot health in your senior years.

“Good foot health is essential to a good quality of life,” said Scanlon. “Exercise is the key. There is no magic formula. You’ve got to get off your derriere and start moving, as long as your doctor gives you clearance.”

The prominent podiatrist said it is easier to embark on an exercise routine when you are not suffering from foot pain. “It saddens and pains me when I see people come in with problems that are so preventable, and yet they don’t follow [a doctor’s] advice and are repeat visitors.”

Understanding some of the podiatric changes that seniors experience can help you to take proper care of your tootsies and maintain good foot health throughout your life.

Mother Nature provides you with built-in insoles on the bottom of your feet in the form of collagen and elastin cushions stuffed with tissue. But in a cruel twist of fate, collagen production decreases as we age.

Starting in middle age, the fat pads on the balls of our feet compress and get displaced over time. This is increased in people who often wear high-heeled shoes, as they tend to have greater pressure on the balls of the feet, as well as those with high-arched feet.

“I advise patients to refrain from walking around barefoot if you suffer from pain on the balls of your feet. A sturdy shoe with good arch support is your friend. If you are a runner, you might consider switching to an elliptical machine, stationary bike, rowing machine or swimming as a form of exercise.”

Did you know there are more than 30 joints in your feet? And the sad fact is that all of them can degenerate with age. Arthritis, which is inflammation of one or more joints, most commonly strikes the big toe or the mid-foot joints on top of the foot.

“That’s why you might feel stiffness in the morning that improves once you get moving,” Scanlon said. “However, the pain typically worsens again at night.”

He stressed the importance of wearing supportive shoes and appropriate shoe inserts, if recommended by your doctor. He also recommended daily calf stretching exercises and using an elliptical machine or bicycle, which do not cause significant stress on your feet.

Years of stuffing your feet into high heels elevates your risk of developing hammertoes, which are permanent bends in your smaller digits.

“In some cases, this is genetically driven, but in most cases it is related to wearing ill-fitting shoes or high heels,” Scanlon said. “In severe cases, there is a surgical intervention that usually involves the removal of bone from the toe.”

With the aging process comes an increase in conditions such as diabetes and peripheral vascular disease. These conditions can cause an increase in the formation of wounds that take longer to heal and have an increased risk of infection.

“People who smoke, are obese or have diabetes need to inspect their feet every day for anything that doesn’t look normal, such as an opening in the skin or irritation,” Scanlon advised. “If you notice any problems, you should see a health care provider. But you should also routinely see a podiatrist and be proactive rather than reactive.”

Good hydration of the skin on your feet is critical year-round for everyone, whether or not you have a circulation problem.

“Fight back against dryness by making sure you’re staying hydrated,” Scanlon said. “Many of my patients don’t realize the importance of moisturizing twice a day. You need to understand that applying moisturizer every other day is not enough. Twice a day minimum, and give yourself a little massage while you are at it.”

Ligaments, which connect bone to bone, can stretch over time, leaving your arches aching and your feet flatter. This throws off your balance and can leave you prone to recurring ankle sprains.

“Doing yoga, tai chi and other stretching exercises are crucial to keeping your arches from aching and preventing sprained ankles by keeping your ankle joints more flexible,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon practices at Chestnut Hill Podiatry within Chestnut Hill Hospital. More information at 215-247-0879.

This article is reprinted with permission from Milestones, the monthly publication of the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging.