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What Happens to the Voice as You Get Older? Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 23rd, 2021

Introduction

In human development, voice changes with age. The most striking changes are experienced during childhood and adolescence owing to structural alterations on the larynx (the voice box) and the vocal cord (fold) tissues. Moreover, hormonal shifts that take place during each stage of development result in corresponding alterations in the structure of the voice box and vocal cord tissues. The transformations that occur to the voice due to the effects of aging manifest in alterations in its pitch, coordination, projection, volume, flexibility, tone, and endurance. Voice changes are different among men and women and are more pronounced in males as they grow from childhood to adolescence. The changes are distinct among women during menopause as shifts in the levels of hormones in the body take place. Hormones and changes in the structure of the vocal folds and larynx are the major reasons why humans experience changes in the pitch, volume, tone, and coordination of their voice as they go through the various stages of development.

Structural Changes

The Larynx

The voice box is the section of the respiratory tract responsible for the production of sound. It contains the vocal cords and is located between the trachea and the pharynx. The voice box is approximately 2-inch long and it undergoes significant changes that alter the voice as an individual age. The pitch of the sound produced by the voice box depends on the degree of contractions experienced in the vocal cord muscles (Handa, 2017). Children usually have small voice boxes and thin vocal cords, hence their higher voices compared to those of adults. Their voices deepen as they go through puberty due to the effect of hormones on their developing bodies. As mentioned earlier, boys’ voices get deeper and are noticeable.

The voice box enlarges and the vocal cords grow longer and thicker. Other developmental features such as larger cavities in the sinuses and bigger throat cavities create more room for the voice to reverberate (Handa, 2017). In many cases, a boy’s voice breaks or cracks, and this continues for a few months as the larynx continues to grow. The voice stabilizes once the larynx stops growing and the vocal cords stop enlarging. Older people experience challenges with phonation. A study conducted by Vaca, Mora, & Cobeta (2015) found out that older people reported decreased phonation times when compared to younger people. Age-related changes that affect the larynx cause shorter phonation times due to an incompetent glottal closure (Vaca et al., 2015).

The Vocal Folds

The vocal folds alter the voice by regulating the amount of air that passes out of the lungs. As an individual grows older, the control of airflow over the vocal folds becomes less efficient and results in a condition known as the presbylarynx. Presbylarynx is characterized by the atrophy of the larynx’s soft tissues, which results in a weak voice that has a limited range and stamina (Handa, 2017). In that regard, the voice of an older individual loses its tone and elasticity. Aging affects the volume and projection of the voice because of a weakened respiratory system. A research study conducted by Lortie, Thibeault, Guitton, and Tremblay (2015) revealed that despite the changes that affect voice production due to aging, the ability to alter the frequency and amplitude of voice is retained. They found out that factors such as depression and anxiety have significant effects on voice quality.

Phases of Voice Change

Childhood

Children experience little changes in their voices as the larynx and vocal cord tissues undergo limited growth during childhood. In most cases, the voice is stable and has a high pitch. The voice box is located higher in the neck and remains unchanged about its size and location (Family Health Team, 2017). Moreover, the size of the vocal folds changes by an insignificant factor. The most dramatic changes occur during adolescence as hormone production increases.

Puberty

The voice changes the most during puberty due to hormone-induced alterations. During puberty, the vocal cord tissues increase in size (Family Health Team, 2017). The larynx causes the pitch of the voice to drop as it grows larger and thicker. The voice box enlarges and moves down lower in the neck. These changes occur in both males and females. However, the change in voice is more pronounced in males as they develop a typical jumping pitch. The female voice pitch drops by an insignificant amount and is less noticeable (Family Health Team, 2017). The voice usually stabilizes by the end of the puberty phase.

Post-Puberty

The voice undergoes further changes as individuals grow from adolescence to adulthood due to an aging voice box and the vocal folds’ loss of elasticity. As the voice box and the respiratory system age, the voice loses its flexibility and becomes weak (Family Health Team, 2017). The vocal cords lose their elasticity and flexibility, and the joints of the voice box become thin. Moreover, the muscles of the larynx might weaken and become thinner (Family Health Team, 2017). Voice changes can also result from the shrinking and stiffening of the lungs and the torso. In certain cases, a voice change can be caused by a decline in an individual’s health status. (Family Health Team, 2017) For example, neurological problems can cause a tremor in the voice. A study conducted by Lortie et al., (2015) revealed that the voice of older individuals is noisier and less stable. Voice stability decreased with age and vocal cord stiffness was responsible for the observed changes in amplitude and frequency (Lortie et al., 2015).

How Hormones Affect the Voice

Hormones play a significant role in the changes that the voice undergoes as individual ages. Scientists have suggested that hormonal changes might be the contributing factor to the voice frequency and pitch observed in individuals as they grow older (Kadakia, Carlson, & Sataloff, 2013). In males, the voice gets higher while in females, it lowers. The pitch rises with age among men and remains unchanged or lowers in women (Gupta, n.d). Scientists have attributed these changes to the decreasing levels of testosterone and estrogen in the body (Handa, 2017). Women experience voice changes in each phase of their menstrual cycle due to the hormonal shifts that occur. During the follicular phase, there are high levels of estrogen and lower levels of progesterone (Kadakia et al., 2013). High levels of estrogen result in the dilation of the nasal blood vessels, which alters voice resonance.

During pregnancy, the phenomena result in a rough voice. Moreover, estrogen leads to the swelling of the vocal folds that increases blood flow to the tissues, causing them to dilate (Kadakia et al., 2013). The premenstrual phase is characterized by high levels of estrogen which causes the swelling of the vocal folds (Kadakia et al., 2013). The swelling alters the voice by producing an inaccurate tone and a low pitch phonation (Kadakia et al., 2013). Women experience difficulties in changing their pitch rapidly. In European opera houses, female singers are granted rest days during this phase of their menstrual cycle. Research has shown that many women experience voice issues during that phase. Significant hormonal shifts occur during menopause. The female voice changes due to the varying levels of androgen, estrogen, and progesterone in the body (Kadakia et al., 2013). However, the effect of androgen (male hormone) is experienced only after menopause. The levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease and the vocal folds become thinner and the pitch lowers (Kadakia et al., 2013). The voice deepens due to the effects of androgens and aging. Aging causes the laryngeal muscles to shrink, the cartilage to harden, and the vocal folds to thicken (Gupta, n.d). These changes are difficult to differentiate from the alterations that result from hormonal changes.

Scientists have shown that voice change may be caused by thyroid hormones. Thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) is a hormone released by the hypothalamus that is responsible for the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). This hormone stimulates the production of T4 and T3 hormones that make the voice hoarse due to high levels of polysaccharide in the vocal folds (Kadakia et al., 2013). Hormonal changes among men usually lead to a decrease in voice intensity and range while in women, it causes a decrease in voice pitch (Gupta, n.d). Low levels of testosterone and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) make the male voice less powerful while high levels of growth hormone (GH) cause a drop in voice frequency (Gupta, n.d).

Factors that Affect Voice Quality

Factors that affect the quality of voice include sleep, diet, clearing the throat, hydration, smoke, allergies, medication, and exercise. Adequate rest improves the tone and pitch of the voice (Handa, 2017). Sleep deprivation has negative effects on the voice. Diet can affect the voice positively and negatively. A balanced diet that is low in sugars is beneficial to the voice while caffeine, alcohol, and high sugars are harmful (Handa, 2017). Caffeine is a diuretic that causes dehydration that dries and irritates the vocal folds. In that regard, hydration is necessary to counter the effects of caffeine. Spicy foods are harmful to the voice because they cause inflammation of the vocal cords. Exercising improves blood circulation in the body that aids in keeping the respiratory system healthy (Handa, 2017). Smoke causes the inflammation of vocal cords, which results in numerous vocal problems. Medications that are taken to relieve allergies affect the voice adversely because they dry out the throat and lower the voice range.

How to Improve Voice Quality

Voice quality can be improved through training, eating a proper diet, hydration, and the avoidance of behaviors such as yelling, singing loudly, and screaming. Training is one of the most effective ways of making one’s voice elastic about its pitch and tone. Training involves exercises such as humming, tone and breath control, and varying the volume of different notes (Family Health Team, 2017). Behaviors such as singing loudly and screaming are dangerous because they make the vocal folds swell and redden, and in some cases, develop nodules. Hydration is an effective method of improving sound quality (Handa, 2017). For instance, singers are advised to drink plenty of non-caffeinated beverages to lubricate the vocal folds. Engaging in regular exercise is recommended because it increases lung capacity and strengthens muscles (Family Health Team, 2017). Voice therapy can also be used to improve voice quality. Examples of exercises used to alter the tone and pitch of voice include digital laryngeal manipulation, accent method, and Lee Silverman Voice Treatment (LSVT).

The effect of aging on the voice can be demonstrated by studying the careers of famous singers. Some of their voices got better with age while others deteriorated as they grew older. Examples of singers whose voices worsened as they aged include Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Meat Loaf, Britney Spears, Vince Neil, and Elton John. These singers can still sing. However, their voices are not as powerful as they sued to be when they were younger. For example, Mariah Carey’s voice has declined over the years. She could hit high and low notes rapidly and shift from a high octave to a whisper in seconds. Currently, these vocal capabilities have vanished as her voice has deteriorated over the years.

Conclusion

The major causes of voice change as one grows older are hormonal changes and the structural and anatomical changes that occur in the respiratory system and the voice box. Aging causes the voice to lose its flexibility, tone, volume, and pitch. Each stage of human development is characterized by specific changes in the tone, pitch, and volume of voice. The vocal cords of older people lose flexibility and elasticity, and as a result, they become weaker and thinner. Voice change during puberty is most noticeable in boys as their voice deepens during the enlargement of the voice box and the thickening of the vocal folds. Another factor that results in voice change is the shift in hormone levels. Other factors that affect the quality of voice include diet, exercise, smoke, rest, allergies, and hydration. It is important to avoid behaviors such as smoking, yelling, and screaming because they have adverse effects on the voice box and vocal folds. The quality of one’s voice can be improved by adopting a healthy lifestyle that involves regular physical exercise, a balanced diet, hydration, and training.

References

Family Health Team. (2017). Web.

Gupta, R. (n.d). Web.

Handa, K. K. (2017). Textbook of voice and laryngology. New York, NY: JP Medical Ltd.

Kadakia, S., Carlson, D., & Sataloff, R. T. (2013). The effect of hormones on the voice. Journal of Singing, 69(5), 571-574.

Lortie, C. L., Thibeault, M., Guitton, M. J., & Tremblay, P. (2015). Effects of age on the amplitude, frequency, and perceived quality of voice. Age, 37(6), 1-24.

Vaca, M., Mora, E., & Cobeta, I. (2015). The aging voice: Influence of respiratory and laryngeal changes. Otolaryngology, 153(3), 409-413.

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