Our feet can tell us how healthy we are

Exactly how do we age? I'd like to tie this down. The more I know about the subject, the more successful I will be at doing it — aging that is.

The most referenced explanation (there are dozens) is called the "wear-and-tear theory." A reliable text on the physiology of aging ("Human Aging" by Digiovanna) defines it as "an accumulation of injuries and damages to parts of the body," resulting from periodically occurring, random impacts i.e. use/overuse, accidents, disease, toxins, etc. Seems like a reasonable explanation.

But, let's digress for a moment. After coming back from a business trip, my husband brought me a recent issue of "New Yorker" magazine because it contained a "fascinating article on aging." He's not prone to giving me things after his travels, so I was touched.

It talked about the wear-and-tear of life and was titled "The Way We Age." It said "human beings fail the way all complex systems fail: randomly and gradually." We're designed with multiple layers of backup (redundancy); we have an extra lung, an extra kidney, extra teeth, but eventually "one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify and there are no more backups."

We are worn down. Or as the senior geriatrician (a medical doctor specializing in aging) at Parker Jewish Institute in New York puts it "we just fall apart."

"Falling apart" happens in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. For example, we get gray hair, thinner hair too. Our noses get wider and longer, our ears get bigger (honest, this is science-based). These are examples of age-related changes we cannot control.

But there are age-related changes we can control or, better put, "manage optimally." I'll start from the bottom. Feet get lots of wear and tear, after all. (And yes, this is, basically, a column about your feet.)

Are you giving them enough attention? If you've ever had a geriatrician examine you, it's surprising how much attention they give your feet. They look for things like splay-footed gait, changes in nails, neglected foot care.

They know if your feet give way (poor balance and weakened muscles are part of the scenario) it can quickly lead to falls and fractures and, ultimately, nursing home care.

There's a phrase (from the earlier-referenced geriatrician, I think). "Decline remains our fate, but until the last backup system fails, we need to preserve, as long as possible, everything we can." Back to your (our) feet.

Little things are important, clipping your toenails regularly (is this too personal?) having pedicures (both men and women can do this) but always in salons with hygienic and well-kept soaking tubes. What about regular podiatrist or foot care visits — that's definitely worth considering.

Shoes off, pull one of your feet up closer so you can see it better. Does it look chapped, mottled, slightly skuzzy? Maybe you could soak it for a while in warm water with some baking soda added? Maybe you could just give it a little more attention.

There's so much to think about related to this business of aging. Maybe it starts with putting our best foot forward. In fact, both of them.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu

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