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Question : I’m 61. I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of my fingernails. They have numerous up-and-down ridges. And they split easily at the tips. Should I worry about some underlying medical condition?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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March 12, 2014
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Some changes in nails can be a sign of an underlying health problem. But the nail ridging you describe is usually not one. It’s simply a common sign of normal aging.

The growth of fingernails and toenails slows as we get older. And their appearance may change. Some nails become yellowed or dull and brittle. Some or all may develop tiny longitudinal ridges. Fingernails tend to become thinner and more fragile. Toenails usually become thicker and harder.

Fingernails don’t always change with age. And they don’t necessarily change at any particular age. But brittle nails are very common, occurring in 27% of women. The nails may separate at the tips in thin layers, peeling like layers of an onion. If the nails are ridged and brittle, they may split lengthwise.

As we age, nails lose their water content. Added risks include:

  • Living in cold, dry climates
  • Frequent washing and drying of the hands
  • Being exposed to cleaning agents and solvents like nail polish removers

You can’t do anything about age-related nail changes. But you can reduce the risk of splitting and breaking that often accompanies them:

  • Avoid long hot baths or showers.
  • If you wash your hands a lot, moisturize them as often as you can after drying.
  • Use a moisturizer (petroleum jelly is fine) on your hands and nails at bedtime.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to cold, dry weather, and wear gloves outdoors.
  • Apply sunblock to your hands to avoid sunburn.
  •  Avoid frequent use of nail polish remover; make sure yours doesn’t contain acetone.
  • Wear protective gloves for household cleaning and washing dishes.
  •  Trim your nails only after soaking them or after a bath or shower. They’ll be less likely to split.
  • File your nails in one direction only, and use a fine emery board or file.
  • Don’t bite or pick at your nails or the protective cuticles around them.

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