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Nail Changes in the Elderly


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When do you remember noticing an elderly person's hand & fingernails for the first time?  When we are young, it can be startling to see the difference in hands & fingernails on our elderly friends & family.  We see those hands that have worked for years & many times for our benefit, yet through the years they begin to show definite signs of age & wear that are not as beautiful to look at as the heart behind their work.  We begin to see yellowing or discoloration, changes in thickness or brittleness, long ridges forming & other general signs of aging.  But what are these conditions?  Is there anything we can do to slow or stop the conditions?  If they are painful conditions, is there anything we can do to alleviate the pain & improve the quality of their everyday lives.

-Ridges on the nails.  Oftentimes this condition comes with age, but sometimes it can occur in younger years.  It is most often harmless & a manicurist will try to buff them out and make them a bit smoother.  If you notice that the ridges are horizontal across the fingernail, or are very deep or discolored, there may be reason for concern.  Horizontal ridges can indicate a thyroid problem, psoriasis, or malnutrition if the body is not absorbing the nutrients offered to it.  If you notice any of these things on yourself, or a loved one, speak up to a doctor about the changes & be sure that they get the help they need.

-Yellowing or discoloration.  Some people think that yellowing of the nails is a common condition that goes hand-in-hand with the aging process.  Slight changes are common, but if you notice much yellowing, it may indicate something else.  Sometimes yellowing occurs when there are vitamin or mineral deficiencies in the body.  A multi-vitamin may help this process slow or stop.  The most common condition, especially in toenails, however, is a fungal infection.  Fungal infections can cause yellowing, thickening or brittleness  in toenails.  The infection must be treated aggressively to counteract the problems that could occur if it is left unchecked.  Barring both of these as more common ailments, yellowing can also indicate a deeper problem.  Thyroid disease, diabetes, & several other diseases can present with yellowing nails as one of the symptoms.  If you suspect any of these, be sure to discuss it with a doctor.

-Thickening nails.  This often occurs during aging because of circulation issues.   Less circulation affects the nails & their thickness.   Increasing circulation will often alleviate this symptom.  Peripheral arterial disease can cause toenails to thicken through lack of circulation.  If circulation is not suspected, fungus is probably the underlying issue, especially if it presents on the toenails.  Keep a close eye on the nails to see if fungal treatments are improving the problem or if there might be medical intervention necessary.

-Ingrown toenails.  If you've ever experienced this, you know how painful they can be.  Encourage your loved one to get it taken care of so that their mobility is not affected.  If it continues to occur, there might be surgical intervention necessary to prevent it happening often.  Mobility is difficult enough in aging without adding this complication.  If left untreated, movement is inhibited & infection may occur.  Be sure someone that is in contact with the individual daily is asking about the toenail & taking a look periodically to determine the best course of action.

There are a number of other things that can occur with the nails during the aging process, these are just the more common ailments.  And, there are a few things that can help with nail health no matter your age.  Taking a biotin supplement may help to support nail health.  Staying well hydrated will help with your nails, along with a number of other health benefits.  Cutting toenails straight across can help prevent ingrown toenails.  Supporting circulation & exercising helps with your nails.  Keeping feet & toes dry, & exposing them to air will help to prevent fungus from developing.  Sometimes these things can feel like a bother to an aging individual, but it is precisely the small things in life that can add or subtract from the quality of the years of our lives.

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