Signs of aging include more than receding hairlines and gums, wrinkles, painful joints, and clogged arteries. As with everything else, your voice ages too, and most people don’t think about taking care of their “voice muscles” like they do their biceps. Have you ever talked to someone on the phone and determined the person is old just by the sound of his/her voice? You’ve likely heard an older person speak with that classic gravely, weak. raspy, wavering, hoarse, and/or breathless voice. With that said, how old do YOU sound?
Why Your Voice Makes You Sound Old
Over 30% of people over age 65 have voice problems. As you age, your larynx (a.k.a. voice box) changes. The following 12 reasons may be causing your voice to become hoarse and weak and thus, sound old:
- Your vocal cords are less elastic (just like aging skin and muscles) and are unable to work in the same way as when you were young. Your vocal cords move and vibrate to make sounds. When the surrounding muscles move, your vocal cords either tighten or loosen. To make higher sounds, your cords tighten.
- Your vocal cords and muscles in the larynx wear out and become more thin. As a result, your voice may sound higher.
- Thickened mucous increases the amount of mass that needs to vibrate and results in a lower pitched voice. This increase is thought to be due to a decrease in hormones that affect the mucous membranes of your vocal cords.
- Acid reflux can cause harshness, sore throat, cough.
- Weak abdominals – In order to form a sound, your abs and rib cage squeeze your lungs which make you exhale air.
- Decreased lung capacity – By the time you’re 80, you may have 50% less volume compared to when you were 20.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – This condition can lead to hoarseness because your vocal cords cannot move well. The inflammation limits the ability of the joint near your windpipe (cricoarytenoid joint) to move.
- Messages from your brain to the voice box become inefficient and nerve endings die.
- Decrease in blood supply and number of lubricating glands which cause the vocal cords to dry out.
- Change in your tongue, lips and teeth making it more difficult to form words. As a result, your voice becomes thinner and wavers.
- Parkinson’s disease
How to Keep Your Voice Younger Longer
Here are some quick fixes to slow and minimize the aging of your voice.
- Stand and sit up straight! Poor posture can prevent deep breathing and adequate air flow, so your vocal cords will have to work harder to produce sounds.
- Exercise. When you exercise, you’ll increase or at least maintain your lung capacity which will help you produce a stronger, more youthful voice. Be sure to do exercises that strengthen your postural muscles (abdominals, shoulders, neck, and back) to hold yourself upright and improve air flow.
- Try not to shout or yell. The more you strain your muscles, the weaker, more tired and inflamed they’ll become. When your vocal cords ‘bang’ together, you can develop nodules (callous-like growths) on them. People in occupations that require a lot of talking, shouting or work in noisy environments are at high risk of damaging their voices or causing a vocal hemorrhage, which can cause permanent damage. See Video: “Saving Your Voice”
- Drink lots of water to keep your voice box moist. Nearby glands produce a saliva-like fluid that lubricates your vocal cords. In order to make this ‘lubricant’, you need to stay hydrated by sipping water every 15 minutes. Drink a total of at least 6 cups of water a day.
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco can increase hoarseness.
- Sing! Singing uses your vocal muscles. The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”, applies to your voice as well. Professional singers know how to preserve their voice and keep their larynx muscles strong. Tip: If you sing in the shower, the steam will help lubricate your voice box. 🙂
- Stay sociable. As adults get older, they often become more socially isolated and speak less.
- Control your cough. Seek remedies if your have a bad cough as it can scar your vocal cords. Then rest your voice for a couple of days to allow your vocal cords to heal. If you have a chronic cough that lasts more than two weeks, be sure to seek medical attention to avoid permanent hoarseness.
- Limit alcohol to one serving per day (or avoid it altogether if you have acid reflux). Alcohol can inflame the mucous membranes of your throat.
- Take care of your teeth. Ever notice that the faces of people with false teeth have a more ‘sunken in’ appearance? That’s because natural teeth are embedded in the jawbone and when you lose a tooth, the jawbone starts to atrophy (waste away). This change in face shape causes the muscles to not work as well and makes it more difficult to form sounds.
- Avoid acid reflux. Acid reflux irritates and dries out your throat which damages your voice. Don’t lie down immediately after eating. Wait at least two hours after eating before going to bed and elevate your head 6-8″ when sleeping. Avoid foods that aggravate acid reflux or irritate an inflamed lower esophagus, such as:
- Carbonated drinks (bubbles increase pressure)
- Coffee (both regular and decaffeinated)
- Caffeine (includes caffeinated soft drinks/tea)
- Chocolate (contains cocoa, fat and caffeine which are irritants)
- Fried food (high fats are associated with heartburn and reflux)
- Beer, wine and liquor (alcohol is believed to relax the valve between the esophagus and stomach leading to reflux)
- High-fat dairy products, such as cheese, butter, cream, creamed foods/soups, whole milk (high fat foods contribute to reflux)
- High-fat cuts of meat, such as beef, pork, lamb, bacon, sausage, cold cuts, chicken skin (fatty foods are harder to digest and stay longer in the stomach, thus increasing your chance of acid reflux)
- Peppermint and spearmint
- Citrus fruits and juices (grapefruit, orange, pineapple, tomato)
- Spicy or acidic foods (as tolerated)
Signs of “silent” acid reflux include:
- Throat clearing
- Croaky lower voice in the morning
- Feeling of having a lump in your throat
Surgical Voice Lifts
Just like a face lift, some Americans are undergoing a “voice lift” where fat or collagen from other body parts are injected into the vocal cords. This brings the flaps of tissue of your vocal cords closer together, so they vibrate better and produce a stronger sound.
Fit Tip: Don’t assume your voice changes are due to aging. Be sure to see your physician to rule out other medical problems that could be developing, especially if you have a smoking and drinking history.