Why do our toenails thicken as we age?

Why do our toenails thicken as we age?


by Megan Horsham (BHSc), Foot Care Assistant, Masterton Foot Clinic



Thick, brittle and discoloured nails are not uncommon as we age so here are some interesting facts about why it happens and what we can do to minimise it.

Nails are mainly composed of keratin, a protein made by the nail root. However, as we age the growth and repair rate of these cells begins to slow down due to poor blood circulation especially in our extremities. Blood circulation is when the small blood vessels in our feet begin to narrow and become thicker making it harder for the blood to flow. This then causes the nail cells to build up causing the nail to thicken from the nail root. This process is called onychoctes.



Although age is the main cause of thickening toenails there are other reasons why it occurs. Listed below are some of them:

  • experiencing trauma of the nail bed over time (surgery, stubbing your toe, general wear and tear )
  • diabetes- poor blood circulation/ peripheral neuropathy
  • peripheral heart disease, high blood pressure
  • systematic diseases like arthritis, cancer, psoriasis
  • Osteoporosis
  • fungal nail infections

Diminishing blood circulation due to age also means there are less antibodies and red blood cells in the body to help fight against infections.


FACT: Studies have shown that males are more likely than women to suffer from thickening nails.


What can you do to help minimise thickening of your toenails?

Unfortunately, we can’t avoid the aging process but there are ways to decrease pain and improve the appearance of thickening nails.

  • By regularly filing your toenails at home, you can help to reduce the thickness of your nails. This can also assists with the appearance by removing the outer layer which is often discoloured.
  • If you do not feel confident in cutting your nails or find them too hard to clip, a podiatrist/foot care assistant can use a mechanical tool, called a burr to grind down the nails. This is often quicker and less painful.
  • When possible avoid using cosmetics such as nail polish, having bare feet in communal areas and wearing poor fitted shoes- these are all things which increase the risk of developing a fungal nail infection.

Burr- metal instrument podiatrist use to thin toenails


Why is it important to look after our feet as we age?

Unlike many parts of our bodies (knees, hips, organs) now, we cannot replace our feet. Therefore we need to care for them as they play an important role in remaining well. Having healthy feet help you to remain mobile longer, reduces the likelihood of having a fall and helps to avoid any general discomfort which you can experience with long, thick toenails.


Megan works at Masterton Foot Clinic as a Foot Care Assistant. She is available for routine foot care- toenail cutting and massage.  To make an appointment http://nzappts.gensolve.com/masterton_foot_clinic/clinician/details/megan_horsham