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Changes in voice over age

Your voice, as is true with so many parts of the body, changes with age. The pitch of many women’s voices drifts lower while men’s voices may become higher. Grandma and grandpa may start to sound more similar, especially over the phone. Add to this age-related hearing problems and communication starts to become even more difficult.

Dr. Kellyn Dailey Hall

Voice changes are mainly caused by changes in hormones causing stiffening and thinning of the protective layer of tissue surrounding the vocal cords. Gradual loss of muscle mass in the vocal cords can cause them to curve inward, leading to a gap between the vocal cords during speaking. This makes the other muscles of the larynx or “voice box” squeeze even harder to produce sounds, especially when singing. These changes can also affect swallowing if the larynx does not close tightly when we swallow, food and liquids can slip “down the wrong pipe” causing coughing spells and potential respiratory problems.

Common symptoms of age-related voice changes include reduced vocal volume, higher pitched voice, breathy, “thin” sound, increased speaking effort and fatigue and difficulty being heard, especially with background noise

Fortunately, there are tips and exercises to help improve and maintain muscle strength for voice.

• The straw trick: Blow air through a regular size straw while gently humming up and down your voice range. Move to smaller sized straws (like coffee stirs). The straw voicing (like playing a kazoo) can be used to warm-up, cool-down and refresh your voice throughout the day.

• Lip trills: Gently blow air through your lightly closed lips. Keep them relaxed (blow raspberries). As you keep them relaxed, turn on your voice and your lips will start to trill. The resistance (similar to the straw trick), relaxes the throat, increases airflow and optimizes vibration of the vocal cords. 

• Stay well-hydrated and take preventive measures to avoid gastric reflux. Taking smalls sips of water throughout the day is better than drinking 6-8 ounces of water at one time.

• Use it or lose it. The muscles of the voice will atrophy (shrink) just like other muscles. Keep your voice in shape by singing or reading aloud every day. Remember to use good breath support and not sing or shout to avoid vocal fatigue and damage to the vocal cords.

• Stay healthy and keep active. A healthy, active lifestyle is reflected in our voice. Get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet and avoiding things that are known to cause the voice to become inflamed like smoking and alcohol. A healthy you makes a healthy voice.

Although gradual voice changes and occasional coughing when drinking thin liquids are common, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor if you notice any changes to your voice. Even mild symptoms may be a sign of other health problems that are not necessarily related to aging so be sure to check you your doctor. Also, a speech-language pathologist and audiologist can help you with age-related voice and hearing changes.

Kellyn Dailey Hall, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Social Work and Communication Sciences and Disorders at Longwood University. Her email address is hallkd@longwood.edu.