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The wavery, shaky 'old person's voice,' explained

When Access Hollywood interviewed 104-year-old Edythe Kirchmaier, we were impressed by her vigor and dedication to Direct Relief International, but we also noticed something else. Kirchmaier, who seems young and vibrant despite her age, had a wavering, breathy voice. This caused us to wonder: What happens to our voices as we age?

“Voice can depend on general health. In general, we start seeing aging problems at age 65,” says Claudio Milstein, associate professor of surgery at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. “The typical change as we get older, is that we get thin, breathy voices … [and] those are the characteristics that make it sound like a person has an old voice.”

Evidence confirms that voices do change with age. The vocal chords should vibrate between 90 and 230 times per minute, with young people experiencing the most movement and older people experiencing the least, explains Amee Shah, associate professor and director of the Research Laboratory in Speech Acoustics and Perception at Cleveland State University.

“In my lab we look at acoustic data because perception can be misleading and the hard numbers confirm it. It is true that as we age our voices change,” says Shah.

When we age our vocal chords weaken and become drier. Our respiratory systems and torsos change, too, with our lungs and chest cavities becoming more rigid, while our spines curve, causing us to stoop over (for some a little, others a lot). Weakened and dry vocal chords become stringy, which prevent normal vibration, causing higher pitched voices that sound thin. And the transformations in the respiratory system and chest mean we have less power behind our voices. Even the joints in our vocal chords can become arthritic, contributing to problems. 

“The vocal folds are made up of muscle and collagen among other things. Just like other muscles thin out or atrophy, the vocal folds do as well,” says Gina Vess, a speech pathologist and director of the Clinical Voice Programs at Duke University Medical Center.

Not everyone suffers from wavering voices as they age. People who are physically and socially active possess stronger voices and those who sing maintain robust voices throughout their lives. 

People who suffer from weakened, breathy voices often become ashamed of how they sound and cringe when asked to repeat themselves over and over. These people then avoid socialization, leading to less vocal exercising. And, they feel more isolated, which leads to depression and a lessened quality of life. 

“It doesn’t mean there is no hope if they notice a weakening. A lot of times nonsurgical treatments [improve voices],” says Vess.

Those suffering from wavering voices should visit an ear, noses, and throat doctor and seek help at a voice clinic. Experts recommend speech therapy first, with more serious treatments such as injections or surgery if therapy fails.  

“Voices carry something about the emotional state and health of the body,” says Milstein. “There are a lot of things we can do to rejuvenate a voice even though it may be part of the normal aging process.”

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