A woman I know enjoys having lunch with me at noisy, popular restaurants. We also attend many of the same gatherings of our friends. However, whenever she speaks, a number of people will later tell me that they could not hear anything she said. Her voice, which was always quiet, has diminished to the point that it is almost impossible to hear what she says unless you are sitting right next to her in a quiet room.
Recently, I read an article titled “Take Care of Your Voice: Why You Sound Hoarse (or Old) and What to do About It” in the September, 2015 issue of Reader’s Digest Magazine. The article is about common vocal problems in senior citizens. Many people experience these voice issues, but may not realize that there are therapies that can improve the quality of their speaking voice.
Therapy for a Hoarse Voice
One common problem is having a voice that constantly sounds hoarse. This often occurs in people who have careers that involve a lot of speaking … lawyers, teachers and people who spend hours on the phone. It can also be an issue for people who have smoked, experienced chronic allergies or were exposed to chemical fumes.
A hoarse voice can be caused by nerve damage or a polyp or similar growth on the vocal folds. If the hoarseness is caused by a polyp or growth, it can be surgically removed. In addition, the patient should see a vocal therapist who can recommend appropriate exercises to enhance their voice quality and prevent a re-occurrence.
Treatments for a Soft Voice
If people have a hard time hearing you and it is difficult for you to project your voice, you may have developed vocal fold atrophy or presbyphonia. Our vocal folds can become weaker as we age. This is especially true for women after menopause or for anyone who is not using their vocal cords enough … for example, someone who has retired and lives alone. This can be a particularly frustrating problem, because it often happens at the same age when our friends are also developing hearing loss. You cannot speak louder and they cannot hear.
Having too soft a voice is another situation for which you will want to see a vocal therapist. An Ears, Nose and Throat doctor should be able to refer you to one. The therapist will use vocal strength training exercises, called PhoRTE (pronounced “forte”), that are designed to help you develop better control of your voice volume.
If the voice therapy does not resolve the problem, doctors can also inject a filler into the vocal cords, similar to the fillers used to eliminate face wrinkles.
Medical Conditions That Change Your Voice
As we all know if we have ever screamed too loudly at an exciting sporting event, there are many situations that can temporarily affect our voices. For example, when you catch a cold, one symptom is often the nasal quality your voice develops. However, if you experience a voice change that lasts more than three weeks, it could indicate a more serious condition including allergies, sinus problems, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), vocal cord cancer or Parkinson’s.
While it is more likely that your vocal problem is caused by an issue that can easily be resolved with therapy, it is important to get a diagnosis and not ignore long-lasting changes to your voice.
How to Care for Your Voice
If you wish to avoid some of the problems mentioned above, here are a few tips for taking care of your voice:
Drink plenty of water, especially if you take medications
Avoid large quantities of coffee, caffeinated soda and alcohol
Do NOT yell or scream
Sing or read aloud daily to work your vocal muscles
Do NOT smoke
Do not purposely try to speak in a deep, low voice that is not natural to you
See your doctor if you are experiencing voice problems; do not accept it as a "normal" part of aging.
If you follow these steps, most people will be able to maintain a pleasant, resonant speaking voice throughout their life.
Additional information available at: The Speech-Language-Hearing Association
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