Our parents are coming out west to go hiking with us. We are concerned about how they will do on mountain trails that are rocky and uneven. They are in pretty good shape overall. Should we encourage them to buy a hiking shoe specifically designed for this kind of activity? Is it worth the money for just one vacation?
Studies testing walking ability on flat surfaces and uneven surfaces in a variety of shoe types have been done. Special motion detector equipment has been used to record three-dimensional (3-D) movement data of the entire body. Young adults and older adults have been tested and compared. In one study, six different shoe types were tested in both age groups on flat and uneven ground.
One of the shoe types included was a lace-up type Oxford shoe with a high collar (high-top). When wearing the soft soled shoes or shoes with a high collar, adults of all ages have a larger shift in their center-of-mass and base-of-support (from side to side). High collar shoes also reduce the margins between center-of-mass and base-of-support from front to back.
Possibly more important than shoe wear, older age (over 65) is a major factor in balance, stability, and falls related to shoewear. For example, older adults have poorer visual contrast sensitivity. This refers to seeing differences or changes in floor/surface color or design (e.g., seeing where bathroom floor tiles end and side of tub begins).
They also had less sensitivity on the bottom of their feet and decreased knee strength compared to younger adults. Older adults were more likely to take shorter steps, walk slower, and spend more time with both feet on the ground at the same time.
When out walking or hiking on uneven ground, give your parents time to navigate the distance and the terrain. Provide walking sticks for everyone so that the older folks don't feel singled out and as if they need a cane. The extra contact of the sticks with the ground increases ground reaction forces and sensory feedback to the brain. This can help when balance is challenged and reduces the risk of falls (and thus injuries from falls).
Jasmine C. Menant, BSc, et al. Effects of Shoe Characteristics on Dynamic Stability When Walking on Even and Uneven Surfaces in Young and Older People. In Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. October 2008. Vol. 89. No. 10.