Harvard Women's Health Watch

By the way, doctor: Does having ridged and split fingernails mean I'm unhealthy?

Q. I'm 63, and I've begun to notice a decline in the quality of my fingernails. They have numerous up-and-down ridges, and at the tips, they're always splitting. I've heard you can tell a lot about a person's health from the condition of her nails. What does this say about mine?

A. Some changes in nails can be a sign of an underlying health problem, but the lengthwise 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, and some or all may develop tiny longitudinal ridges. Fingernails tend to become thinner and more fragile, while 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, a condition called onychoschizia. If the nails are ridged and brittle, they may split lengthwise. The problem tends to increase with age, as nails lose their water content. Dehydration is a risk in cold, dry climates and with frequent washing and drying of the hands and exposure to cleaning agents and solvents like nail polish removers.

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