We expect as older adults that over time, hearing and vision acuity may diminish and we will likely need to wear glasses and possibly a hearing aid, but seniors may not expect changes to their voice in older age. In some cases, vocal difficulties can be a result of a treatable condition but physical changes in old age can also lead to symptoms of vocal cord atrophy or bowing. In women, hormonal changes following menopause can contribute to a drop in vocal pitch over time.
According to research from Duke University Medical Center, about a third of elderly adults over the age of 65 experience vocal problems. Men may notice a higher vocal pitch in older age and women a lower pitch. Reduced volume and projection, reduced vocal endurance, difficulty being heard in noisy environments and a tremor or shakiness in the voice are all common changes in the voice as we age. Having a thin voice can make communication with peers difficult, especially if they experience hearing loss. Combined, these disabilities can contribute to an increased risk for depression, anxiety and social isolation. Seniors may also stain their voices trying to communicate with hard of hearing spouses or peers, worsening voice problems associated with aging.
Because remaining socially connected is so important for healthy aging, treating vocal difficulties is important for older adults to be able to communicate effectively with others. A voice-trained speech-language pathologist can help treat conditions that interfere with vocal pitch, loudness and clarity.
Seniors who live alone can sometimes go days or even weeks without talking to other people. To help improve voice quality, older adults can read aloud for 10-15 minutes, several times each day from a book or the newspaper or sing with the piano or radio. Joining a community choir, volunteering to read to children or even talking to your pet can help preserve vocal fitness.
You can start early to preserve vocal health by making these healthy choices:
- Drink plenty of water each day
- Limit coffee, caffeinated tea, and soda
- Avoid vocal overuse and abuse (yelling or screaming)
- Quit smoking, avoid the use of smokeless tobacco, and limit exposure to secondhand smoke
- Treat associated acid reflux
- Manage stress appropriately
Source: American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
If you are experiencing changes in voice, talk with your doctor about treatment options. In some cases hoarseness can be a side effect of medications but a Otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) can best assess the cause of presbyphonia (vocal difficulty) and rule out any serious medical conditions.