Signs of aging include more than receding hairlines and gums, wrinkles, painful joints, and clogged arteries. As with everything else, your voice ages too. Most people don’t think about taking care of their “voice muscles” like they would their biceps, so here are some tips to help keep your voice from growing old.
How You Make Sound
Voice production relies on three things:
- A vibration source (two flexible bands of muscle tissue, a.k.a. vocal cords) — The vocal cords open when you breathe, and they close and vibrate together to produce sound. If these bands of muscle are stiff, dry, or thin, you cannot produce a range of sounds, and your voice will be gravely, raspy, wavering, or hoarse.
- A power source (lungs) — As air passes through your vocal cords, the surrounding muscles and the bands move closer together and vibrate to make sound. If you can’t push a lot of air out of your lungs, you’ll end up with a weak or breathless voice.
- The throat, mouth, lips, tongue, and teeth to modify the sound — If you’re missing teeth or have a condition that affects these muscles, you won’t be able to form words very well. And like all muscles, if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them (atrophy).
The Four Key Causes of Sounding Old
Over 30% of people over age 65 have voice problems.
- Reduced elasticity: Aging vocal cords become less elastic (just like aging skin and muscles) and are unable to lengthen and tighten like they used to. When vocal cords lengthen (tighten), they produce a higher pitch. When they shorten (loosen), they produce a lower pitch.
- Decreased lung capacity: By the time you’re 80, you may have 50% less volume compared to when you were 20. Lung tissue helps keep airways open, but can lose its stretchability. When the airways cannot open as much, it results in smaller airways. That is, you end up with a weaker power source.
- Vocal cord dehydration: Due to a decrease in blood supply and number of lubricating glands that occur with aging, the vocal cords can dry out, causing hoarseness, a sore throat, and a cough — all of which can damage vocal cords.
- Vocal cord atrophy (thinning): Just like all muscles in the body that may thin with age, the vocal cords and muscles in the larynx (a.k.a. voice box) wear out and become more thin (shrink) too. As a result, the voice may sound higher and raspy. To confirm your symptoms are caused by atrophy, an examination, such as a flexible laryngoscopy, is required.
- Surgical voice lifts (for atrophy) — Just like a face lift, some Americans are undergoing a “voice lift”. In this procedure, fat or collagen from other parts of the body is injected into the vocal cords. The injection ‘plumps’ them up, so the vocal cords are closer together, which enable them to vibrate better and produce a stronger sound.
Top 10 Tips to Keep Your Voice Younger Longer
Here are some quick fixes to slow and minimize the aging of your voice.
- Exercise. Do exercises that strengthen the diaphragm, abdominals, back, neck, and shoulders (the postural and inspiratory muscles). Poor posture prevents deep breathing and adequate air flow. Shallow, frequent breaths produce little power for vibrating the vocal cords. Also, in order to form coherent sounds, your abdominals and diaphragm need to squeeze your lungs with enough power to exhale all the air. To strengthen your power source (that is, increase your lung capacity), it’s essential to include cardio workouts in your exercise routine.
- Care for teeth and gums. When you lose a tooth, the jawbone starts to atrophy (waste away). Changes in your face shape, tongue, lips and teeth make it more difficult to form sounds. As a result, the vocal cords and surrounding muscles atrophy and the voice wavers.
- Avoid shouting or yelling. The more you strain your muscles, they’ll become weaker, more tired, and inflamed. When your vocal cords ‘bang’ together, you can develop nodules (callous-like growths) on them. People that work in loud, noisy environments that require a lot of shouting are at a high risk of damaging their voices or causing a vocal hemorrhage, where one or more blood vessels in the vocal cord rupture and bleed, which can cause permanent damage.
- Drink lots of water to keep your voice box moist, so they produce thin, watery mucus and don’t dehydrate. Your vocal cords vibrate more than 100 times a second when you speak. So in order to stay hydrated, sip water every 15 minutes — at least 8 cups of water daily.
- Control coughing. Seek remedies if you have a bad cough as it can scar your vocal cords. Then rest your voice for a couple of days to allow the 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 and to diagnose any other underlying problem.
- Thickened mucus increases the amount of mass that needs to vibrate and results in a lower pitched voice. NOTE: Decongestants can dehydrate the vocal cords.
- Limit alcohol to one serving per day. Alcohol can inflame the mucous membranes of your throat.
- Avoid acid reflux culprits (e.g., fatty foods, carbonated drinks, alcohol, acidic foods). Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) irritates and dries out the throat. Signs of “silent” acid reflux include: throat clearing, a croaky lower voice in the morning, and/or a feeling of having a lump in your throat. Be sure to see your physician to confirm this diagnosis.
- Sing! Singing uses your vocal muscles. Professional singers know how to keep their larynx muscles strong as well as how to preserve their voice. 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.
- Don’t smoke or vape. Both can compromise your power source (lungs) and cause vocal cord injury. Nicotine can dry out vocal cords and hot, throat-irritating vaporized chemicals from vaping can cause the lining and tissue of the vocal cords to swell.
Karen’s Fit Tip: Take care of your vocal cords by treating them well and getting plenty of exercise. Also, DO NOT assume changes in your voice are due to aging. Be sure to see your physician to rule out other medical conditions that could be developing, especially if you have a history of smoking and drinking.