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Do nail changes signify a health problem?

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Q. I am 65 and have noticed a decline in the quality of my fingernails. Should I worry about some underlying medical condition?

A. For the most part, changes in fingernail shape and appearance are simple signs of normal aging and are nothing to worry about. Fingernails naturally grow slower as we age, and their appearance may change, too. Nails can become yellowed, dull, and brittle. They may develop tiny longitudinal ridges and become thinner and more fragile. You can’t do anything about these kinds of fingernail changes, but you can reduce the risk of splitting and breaking that often accompanies them. For example:

  • Use a moisturizer on your hands and nails at bedtime.

  • Wear gloves for household cleaning and dish washing.

  • Don’t bite or pick at your nails or cuticles.

In some cases, fingernail changes may be a sign of a health issue. For instance, horizontal lines across the fingernails can be seen in people with diabetes, heart disease, and malnutrition. Nail pitting is common in people with psoriasis. Dark ridges beneath your nails could be a sign of skin cancer and require a visit to your doctor. (Protect yourself by applying sunscreen to your hands and nails when outside.)

— by Howard LeWine, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Men’s Health Watch

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