The Aging Voice

Dr. Herbert Steven Sims Ear-Nose and Throat Doctor (ENT) Chicago, IL

Dr. Herbert Steven Sims M.D. is a top Ear-Nose and Throat Doctor (ENT) in Chicago, IL. With a passion for the field and an unwavering commitment to their specialty, Dr. Herbert Steven Sims M.D. is an expert in changing the lives of their patients for the better. Through their designated cause and expertise in the field,... more

If we are fortunate enough to keep living, our bodies will invariably begin to change. The vocal folds include muscles and overly tissue that can vibrate and make sounds. They are not protected from the normal again process. As we mature, our ability to produce voice evolves. Alterations and adjustments are certain.

However, we don't have to fear change. Most of you reading this have already conquered the voice changes that occur as you grow up and the size of your body doubles or triples or more. You have already mastered the vocal roller coaster brought on by puberty. You know how to keep functioning and communicating even when we have a cold. If you are female, you may be familiar with the voice changes that accompany pregnancy and having a child. You have figured it out. One of the gifts of our humanity is the ability to adapt to shifting world around us.

So what can you expect? Often the most notable change is in endurance. The voice sounds about the same, but we begin to notice we get tired more easily and some of the tasks we used to do with ease now require effort. For performers, you may need to pay more attention to the songs you can select and the number of songs you can sing without a break. For educators, you may also need to take breaks to allow the voice to rest for 5-10 minute intervals. You may also have to take advantage of technology to help project your voice, particularly in large classrooms. Sometimes, you may have to make choices and plans about ways to conserve your voice so that the "best voice" will be available when you need it.

The basic structure of the vocal folds includes the true vocal folds which contain the main voice muscle, the vocalis. Above the true vocal folds are the false vocal folds. The true vocal folds are primarily how we make voice, but the false vocal folds can be made to vibrate if we squeeze them together hard enough...but I digress.

Changes in the voice come as the vocal folds begin to lose some of their bulk (shrivel a little) and begin to lose some of their muscle tone--like the rest of the muscles in our bodies as we age. The true vocal folds can become thinner. We describe them as bowed--like bowed legs. In the office, Laryngologists may comment that there is bowing AND as a compensation, the false vocal folds are squeezing in trying to help get the true vocal folds all the way together. Our bodies try to compensate when we experience changes.

Another change that can occur is less precision in how the system functions. Vocal tremor occurs when the muscles essentially "shake" during tasks. Katherine Hepburn is a classic example of a vocal tremor that occurred with shaking of the head and neck (tremors) as well.

Adults are also more likely than children to be taking pharmaceuticals to treat medical conditions. These pills, while helpful, often have side effects that are revealed in the voice. Conditions like allergies and reflux chronically inflamed the vocal folds and lead to hoarseness. 

BUT ALL IS NOT LOST. There are vocal strengthening exercises that can help work these muscles to regain some bulk and tone. Straw phonation exercises can help.  There are strategies to help the vocal folds close better technique to avoid overworking a single muscle and using the whole system better. There are even some medical and surgical interventions that might be appropriate for select people who can benefit without health risks. We can continue to age, and speak/sing gracefully.