Aging Feet, Toes, and Nails: Withstanding the Test of Time

The 10/2/12 NY Times, Science Times Q+a column highlighted this question: “Why do toenails thicken as we age but fingernails don’t?”

Immediately I remembered a friend telling me that her 100-year-old old mother-in-law had “awful toenails–thick–wouldn’t let anyone touch them” so they were getting worse and worse–what to do?

Old feet aren’t readily visible. They’re the complete opposite of the prettily polished nails and pampered feet in strappy open-toe shoes and sandals we see all summer. Indeed, are we aware when our parents are no longer limber enough to cut their toe nails? Possibly like me, you don’t often think of aging parents’ feet and nails, unless there’s a problem. But being proactive, as we’ve all learned, saves later problems.

The Times column cites Dr. Richard Scher, head of the Nail Section at Weil Cornell Medical College, explaining that finger and toe nails’ growth rate rapidly decreases with age so both kinds of nails thicken due to the piling up of cells, although fingernails don’t thicken as much. (Finger nails have a slower growth rate, the result of filing and buffing which thins them, so it’s understandable that they aren’t as affected.)

Additionally, long-term trauma and poor circulation take their toll on toe nails, as do injuries, stubbing, wearing ill-fitting shoes, nail-bed injuries and nail fungus.

I discussed the above with Dr. Pamela Karman, Diplomate/American Board of Foot Surgeons, this week in New York. She advises soaking feet in warm water, which softens toenails, before cutting them.

 As nails thicken, making  them more difficult to cut, Dr. Karman suggests having them done professionally once a month after age 55-60. This especially holds true for people with diabetes or unsteady hands.

A podiatrist or a manicurist can do the pedicures older people require. I remember after Mother died, Dad took the car keys saying he’d be back shortly. He was driving to to Mother’s manicurist to have his toe nails (which he could no longer easily reach at 91) cut. He added that all the older men in the condo complex where he and Mother lived, went there.

The holidays are approaching; so will be our never-ending search for the right gifts for older people.  Wouldn’t pedicures (ideally 1 a month) be a great and practical gift as we try to help parents age well.

“Of Current Interest” (right sidebar) links to timely information and research–plus some fun stuff–to help parents age well.

Related:  A Mayo Clinic photo-lesson on trimming thickened toenails 


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