Voice and Aging
Voice is one aspect of communication. The sound of our voice is also something with which we identify strongly. It is uniquely us. But like the rest of our body, our voice changes with normal aging.
How does our voice change with aging?
Our voice may sound thinner, less resonant. This is the change that is most often associated with aging, and is known as vocal asthenia. Vocal asthenia occurs because our vocal folds lose muscle over time and become thinner, less pliable.
Our voice may sound rougher, have a hoarse quality to it. Again, due to normal aging, our vocal folds become stiffer and less pliable. They may bow or curve inward, and as a result, don’t vibrate tightly together. Having uncontrolled reflux (heart burn) or smoking will make this worse.
Our voice may be less loud. A decrease in loudness is a direct result of lower lung capacity or breath support. Reduced breath support occurs when our respiratory system is compromised. Common contributors to poor breath support include neurological impairment, COPD, and reduced overall fitness.
Our pitch may change. A change in pitch is common with aging. In women, pitch may drop over time, likely due to hormonal changes. In men, pitch may increase slightly. The reason is not fully understood, but is likely due to atrophy of muscle in the vocal folds.
As we age, we may also experience vocal fatigue; our voice fades later in the day. The most common cause is general muscle fatigue. A weak voice puts us a risk for isolation. When speech requires effort and causes fatigue, we decrease our social connections, our engagement with family, friends, and community.
So, what do we do to maintain our vocal quality?
We cannot change the aging process, but we certainly can reduce its effects. One of the most important things we can do, is to practice good vocal hygiene. Good vocal hygiene seems simple, but habits developed over the years may sabotage our voice. Good vocal hygiene includes:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Because the sense of thirst decreases with age, we need to remind ourselves to drink fluids. Fluids do not have to be just water.
- Avoid shouting.
- Avoid smoking. Seek help if you currently smoke.
- Rest your voice during cold/flu season. Do not try to whisper loudly to be heard.
- Manage heartburn/reflux. Uncontrolled reflux affects more than just your voice. Seek medical advice to achieve optimal management.
Improving our general fitness will also benefit our voice.
Doing just the following can help improve the loudness and quality of our voice.
- Increase your physical fitness. As mentioned above, reduced lung capacity affects the loudness of our voice. An overall decrease in fitness will result in decreased breath support, and, as a result, lower vocal loudness. If you have not been active for a while, consult with your physician before beginning a program, or seek physical therapy services to prevent injury while you regain fitness.
- Improve your posture. Improved posture allows your lungs to expand and fill with more air. With more air, you are able to talk louder, and in longer sentences. Again, a physical therapist can assess and guide you toward improved body alignment.
If you feel your voice change is not due to aging but a result of a compromised respiratory system due to COPD or neurological impairment (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, MS, stroke, etc.), speech therapy may benefit you. The clarity and loudness of your voice is dependent on effective use of breath. By using techniques to improve speech breathing, a speech-language therapist can improve the quality and strength of your voice.