Your feet can experience wear and tear as you age — after all, they've (literally) carried you through life. That's why you might have trouble with your tootsies as you get older. But what changes can you expect in aging feet, exactly, and why?
Here are the most common foot problems in older adults and how to deal with them, plus some expert-approved shoe recommendations to support healthy feet as you age.
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According to Kenneth Cornell, DPM, a podiatrist at Austin Regional Clinic in Austin, Texas, adults are generally more likely to have foot issues — including foot pain — as they get older. There can be several causes, but the most common is overuse and the way your feet change over time.
"As we age, our feet tend to have less elasticity — our arches become weaker and tissue becomes less elastic," he says. "When there is less elasticity, you're more likely to suffer arthritis or overuse injury and, therefore, foot pain."
Fix it: As with any type of persistent pain that's difficult to manage, talk to your doctor regardless of whether or not you've already been diagnosed with a foot injury or condition. You may ultimately need foot surgery if pain from overuse persists, but your doctor can help you figure out the right treatment plan.
2. Plantar Fasciitis
Plantar fasciitis is one of the most common foot issues that can crop up as you age, Dr. Cornell says. It's a condition caused by injury to the plantar fascia, the ligament that connects your heel to the front of your foot and acts as arch support.
When the plantar fascia is strained and inflamed, it can cause heel and arch pain.
Fix it: While the condition is common — especially in more active people, like runners — it's also preventable with the help of natural remedies for plantar fasciitis. "The best way to prevent plantar fasciitis and many other foot pain issues is to find shoes that fit correctly and have the right amount of support," Dr. Cornell says.
He recommends shopping for orthotic inserts to help with cushioning and shock absorption to avoid heel pain, especially if you've had plantar fasciitis in the past. You should also avoid shoes with little heel and arch support — like sandals, flip flops and ballet flats — as they can be hard on your feet and add stress to the ligaments supporting your arch.
Stretching is also important to relieve pain and prevent re-injury, Dr. Cornell says. Using a band to stretch your calves, Achilles tendon and foot will help. Rolling a ball (like a lacrosse or spiky massage ball) on the bottom of your arch or using a foot stretcher can also provide relief.
Arthritis, which is swelling or tenderness of one or more joints, is also common as we age, Dr. Cornell says. This typically occurs because our arches weaken over time, paving the way for joint strain and pain.
Ankle arthritis, which is a form of osteoarthritis, occurs when the cartilage of the ankle joint wears thin and breaks down over time. When the bones lack cartilage to protect them from the friction that occurs with movement, they can fragment and form spurs, which can cause pain and stiffness in the joint.
Fix it: "Like [with] plantar fasciitis, wearing shoes with great arch support should help, as well as stretching," Dr. Cornell says. "However, if pain persists, surgery might be necessary."
4. Flat Feet
Another common foot problem in older adults is adult-acquired flat feet, Dr. Cornell says. This occurs when the foot starts turning out as the tendons, which are meant to hold up the arch, begin to weaken.
Fix it: Regular stretching and wearing supportive shoes can be helpful, but if your pain doesn't go away, Dr. Cornell recommends talking to your doctor to determine if surgery may be necessary.
Bunions are a protrusion on the side of the big toe that occur when some of the bones in the front part of your foot move out of place, Dr. Cornell says.
"Bunions can worsen as we age because our feet get wider and arch height decreases," he says. "As the tissues relax, the bunion gets larger."
Fix it: You may have heard that bunions require surgery, but it's still not clear how well these procedures work and is thus usually a last resort after you've tried other treatments and methods to relieve your pain, according to the University of Michigan Health.
To prevent bunions from getting worse, it's best to wear comfortable shoes with adequate arch support, wide toe boxes and to avoid pointy-toed shoes, Dr. Cornell says. You can also wear a bunion corrector to help keep your toe in alignment.
Bunion correctors can also help protect the protruding bone from rubbing against your shoe and forming blisters or calluses, per the University of Michigan Health.
Hammertoe occurs when the toe (often the second one) moves up and out of position, Dr. Cornell says.
"Sometimes pressure from a bunion could cause hammertoe, but it's more often caused by wearing shoes that are too narrow or don't fit well," he says. "Wearing high heels can aggravate this condition by pushing the toes into the shoe."
People with hammertoe also often develop calluses due to the bent toe rubbing against the shoe, which can aggravate the pain, he says.
Fix it: Choose your footwear wisely. The best shoes for hammertoe have a deeper and wider toe box, Dr. Cornell says. Certain exercises — like picking up marbles with your toes — may help strengthen the area to relieve pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Still, in severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
7. Morton's Neuroma
A neuroma is a benign growth of nerve tissue, usually around the third and fourth toes, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA).
It's sometimes called a pinched nerve or nerve tumor, and can create a burning sensation, tingling or numbness between the toes while walking, Dr. Cornell says. This condition is more common in people assigned female at birth than people assigned male at birth.
Fix it: With a neuroma, you'll often feel pain while walking (it may feel like you have a rock in your shoe), which can be relieved by stopping to take off your shoes and rubbing the affected area. Neuromas are often caused by wearing high heels frequently, so your shoe choice can help to reduce your risk as well, per the APMA.
The Best Podiatrist-Approved Shoes to Buy
Dr. Cornell says you're at higher risk for the above conditions as you age, which is why investing in supportive, quality footwear is crucial.
"Many foot conditions can be prevented by wearing proper footwear and, when needed, orthotic inserts," he says. "Common foot conditions that occur as we age, such as bunions, neuromas, hammertoes and calluses, can be prevented by choosing shoes that fit correctly and by avoiding high heels."
When shopping, Dr. Cornell recommends looking for shoes that aren't too flexible in the toes (you shouldn't be able to roll the shoe up) and a wide (versus narrow) toe box. "Your shoes should provide adequate biomechanical support and stability to the foot, as well as good longitudinal arch support," he says.
And make sure to measure your feet before you buy, as they can flatten and widen as you get older, thereby changing your shoe size.
Based on those guidelines, here are some of Dr. Cornell's recommendations for comfortable and supportive footwear. Note that certain brands categorize their shoes as being for "men" or "women," which is why we've used those terms below.
The Best Shoes for Aging Feet
- For running and exercise (for women): HOKA ONE ONE Bondi 7 ($160, HOKA.com) and Saucony Triumph 19 ($150, Saucony.com)
- For running and exercise (for men): HOKA ONE ONE Bondi 7 ($160, DicksSportingGoods.com) and Saucony Triumph 19 ($150, Saucony.com)
- For everyday wear and casual activity: Birkenstock Arizona ($99.95, Birkenstock.com) and OOFOS OOriginal Sandal ($59.95, Zappos.com)
- Dress shoes: Vionic Men’s Spruce Dress Shoes ($71.82-$184.04, Amazon.com) and Vionic Women's Charm Cheryl Loafer ($38.34-$130, Amazon.com)
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.