Aging and the Voice

by Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. on February 10, 2011

I love it when readers tell me what they want!  I had a request recently from one of my tweeps to post something about aging and the voice.  This is an aspect of voice that is not often written about, so I’m glad she asked.

If you consider what’s happening in the rest of our bodies when we reach our fifth or sixth decade of life, you’ll have a clue as to what’s happening to our voices.

As the years pile on, the first sign of aging we may notice in our bodies is that we get a little stiff.  The knees may provide sound effects for us when we climb stairs.  We might also find ourselves getting a bit more winded as we climb those stairs.  Those changes in joints and lung function are affecting the vocal mechanism at the same time.

When the joints in our vocal mechanism get less flexible, it affects our pitch and our articulation.  Let’s talk about pitch first.  The joints that the vocal fold (vocal cord) tissue is attached to need to move freely and easily.  Add a little calcification (arthritis) and they can’t do that as well.  But that’s not all that happens that affects pitch.  In women, hormonal changes after menopause can cause their voices to get lower in pitch.  In men, it’s the opposite.  Their voices may rise in pitch due to a thinning of the vocal fold tissue.  Sounds crazy, but it’s true:  men’s voices go up and women’s voices go down.  For both sexes, the calcification in joints makes it a bit more difficult to articulate sounds as quickly and concisely as before.  So the voice quality is not only changing, but so is the articulation.

At the same time all this is happening in our throats, the muscles that play a part in our breathing are getting slightly weaker because we’re losing muscle mass as we age.  We can’t take in quite as much air because our intercostal muscles and diaphragm muscle are losing some power.  All this can make our voices weaker and softer, and we may have to add more breath pauses as we talk.

Don’t think that this is all gloom and doom.  In Part 2 of this post I am going to give you lots of ways to combat the ravages of time and keep your voice vibrant and strong.  Watch for that in about a week.  In the meantime, one word of caution:  Always see a doctor if  you experience any of these symptoms for more than a week:  hoarseness, vocal fatigue, voice cracking in pitch, coughing, pain when swallowing or talking.  See a doctor immediately if you feel swelling or a mass in your throat.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joan June 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Your article touches on the average person that does nothing physically as they age, therefore all the above effects happen. I am so often told that its because we age that they cannot physically or mentally do what they used to; so true as they do less and less each day…… I found yoga and ever since have only improved my range, my tehniques, and range…. as I age. Now in my 51st year, I sing better than in my 20’s.

Ann S. Utterback, Ph.D. June 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm

You’re so right, Joan. And as you age it’s just a process of finding activities that fit your “new” body. I know women in their 80’s who were lifting more weight than I was in my 50’s!

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