How can footwear enhance our balance as we age?

As we age, our peripheral nervous system can become less sensitive, which means nerves in feet and hands no longer send a full range of signals. This helps explain why older adults tend to lose their balance more easily: lost sensation on the soles of our feet translates into less information going to our brains about gait and terrain.

“By the time you detect a change in movement under the sole of your feet, you’ll already be too far gone and will fall over,” says Liz McLeod, a biomechanical master of science, kinesiology student at Wilfrid Laurier University.

McLeod is a researcher in the biomechanics lab of her supervisor, Stephen Perry, who studies how our feet impact our ability to balance. McLeod’s speciality is the mid-sole and she is investigating the balance-enhancing effects of shoe material for that region of the foot.

Previous research suggests a hard, thin material in that area helps boost feedback for older adults about where and how they are placing their feet. But that research hasn’t delved into how long the effect lasts and whether it leads to continued improvement or to a plateau.

McLeod is recruiting 30 women between the ages of 65 and 84 to help her figure this out. The women will wear shoes with various levels of hardness and thickness in the mid-sole over a 12-week period. McLeod will check in regularly with them about their experience.

Her goal is to come up with recommendations for the most effective ranges of midsole thickness and hardness so that shoe manufacturers can incorporate them into their products.

Next steps

McLeod plans to leverage this experience after graduation to land a job in research or healthcare.

She sees her work as a labour of love: a Cree woman born in Moose Factory, Ontario and raised in Timmins, she is keenly aware that Indigenous people are at much greater risk of diabetes than the general population. Diabetes can affect the nervous system, making Indigenous populations more susceptible to falls.

“A lot of my family and my community are affected by diabetes,” she says. “Living in remote areas, they don’t have access to many preventative health care programs.

“So this is partly about me giving back. Hopefully, with my knowledge in footwear in fall prevention research, I can help to increase balance for those who are at risk of falling. ”

**On February 2, 2016, the Council of Ontario Universities proudly launched the Let’s Take Our Future Further campaign highlighting Aboriginal learners’ achievements at Ontario universities and their contributions to Ontario’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. As part of the launch of the Future Further website, Research Matters is proud to feature five influential Aboriginal researchers from Ontario universities. 

Liz McLeod

Wilfrid Laurier University

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