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Can We Preserve Our Voices as We Age? (VIDEO)

By Barbara Lewis February 14, 2022 Health and Fitness

“You may not see me, but you’re damn well going to hear me!” My good friend, Anna, boomed out to a male server in a coffee shop who refused to “see” her waiting next in line to give her order. Anna, who is 72, is a theatre actor whose well-trained voice can still sound like a mighty thunderclap.

She’s a majestic-looking woman with a shock of white hair. She claims that she is often not seen in public situations. And sadly, she is not alone in feeling this way. Many older women struggle with not being seen in their later years.

But some women are also betrayed by their voices. So, in addition, they find it increasingly difficult to be heard.

My Voice Is in Trouble

Lina, another close friend who is in her 60s, lives in Mexico and works in a male-dominated business. She told me recently, “My mother had a huge voice. So does my daughter. But my own voice is weaker now. And when I’m around people who are loud, I have to raise my arm, wave and shout to be heard. It’s a very emotional issue for me. I feel like I’m not worth anything. Like I have no value.”

As a singer and vocal coach who specializes in working with singers who are over 40, I understand Lina’s frustration. Over the years, many people have asked me about ways to overcome vocal problems like shakiness and tremors in the voice.

Or like my friend, Lina, they find that they have reduced volume and can’t be heard in social situations. Or their voices tire very easily, and they ask me, “Can this be fixed?”Some women also find that their voices are getting much lower. (While some men complain that their voices have become whiny and higher-pitched.)

I hear despair in these queries. Aging is enough of a challenge without the prospect of not being able to speak with ease and pleasure. So what happens with our female voices as we get older? And what can we do about it?

Are There Solutions to These Problems?

In my search for answers, I have discovered a book called, Singing Through Change written by Nancy Bos, Joanne Bozeman and Cate Frazier-Neely. The book targets those women who sing into their later years – amateur and professional alike. But the information, lessons and answers offered in this book are relevant to any woman who values her voice as a means of communication. And don’t we all? 

Since women’s issues are often not at the forefront of scientific study, it should come as no surprise that these kinds of problems are not well documented. The authors write in their book that: “This is the first time that any published source has shared so many women’s individual experiences in a book.”

Because the book is a font of rare information, I recommend to all women who are struggling with voice issues that they read it, even if they are not singers. At the very least, you will learn how other women have approached and overcome their vocal challenges. And on a side note, the authors mention a study that found that those women who sing into later life are better able to maintain a younger-sounding voice.

Why Do Our Voices Change?

Let’s look at some of the physical changes that can affect the function and sound of our voices as we age:

  • over time we lose elasticity in the cartilage of the ribs
  • our lung tissue becomes less pliable 
  • the structures of the spine and neck may change
  • we lose muscle mass
  • we may lose some hearing ability 
  • the mucous membranes in our mouths can become thinner and drier.

Or, in some cases, older women can have too much saliva, as opposed to too little. My aunt Ursula had this problem. Her handkerchief was always at hand to dab her wet eyes and drooling mouth. We laughed about it. But I know that she found the excess leakage a source of embarrassment. 

I suppose we could just chock it all up to getting older and go with the flow of life. But in my work as a vocalist and vocal coach, I’ve both experienced and witnessed how the older voice can improve.

The Value of a Few Singing Lessons

In my vocal teaching, I find that simply exploring the basics of singing can be a helpful first step. A new student relearns how to stand well. When you’re slumped over, you can’t support your voice efficiently. So, we work on breathing and posture in the early-stage singing lessons. 

I also suggest that women read out loud for a few minutes every day. Read something you love to someone you love. Even if the recipient is you!

Singing lessons can also help with other aspects of the voice: 

  • vocal exercises teach you how to coordinate the muscles of the throat
  • with songs, you learn how to let emotions flow through your voice
  • with performance, you learn to use your body and your voice as a way to express deeply held feelings.

I feel that some older women are longing to express themselves more deeply. But they lack the outlet to do so. And though I have no scientific evidence of this, I suspect that the human voice can suffer profoundly from the lack of authentic expression.

The Hidden Power of a Choir 

Singing in a choir can be a way to rekindle the desire and the ability to express yourself more fully through your voice. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, our brains release the chemical oxytocin when we sing with others. He writes: “That’s a chemical that’s involved in social bonding and it’s believed to give rise to the feelings of togetherness and friendship that come from singing together.” 

What If None of These Things Work?

But there are times when nothing we try seems to help. Then it may be time to seek out a voice specialist like Melanie Tapson, who is a professional singer as well as a sought-after speech language pathologist (SLP). 

On her website, she lists numerous vocal problems that come under her care, including pain when speaking or swallowing, hoarseness, pitch or volume changes, vocal fold motion/disorder and chronic cough.

I asked Melanie to offer a couple of suggestions about ways that we can avoid some of these issues. Her first suggestion was to “Keep singing!” She also wrote: “Be kind to yourself and take care of your whole body.”

And what about surgery, like injecting a filler into the vocal cords? Is this of value? Melanie told me that“fillers can be beneficial for the right candidate – especially those whose vocal folds are no longer as full as they used to be. But all surgical procedures […] benefit from a team approach including a voice-specialized speech-language pathologist, or clinical voice therapist, to ensure the best possible outcome.” 

As a long-time singer and vocal coach, I know that each voice is unique unto itself, precious and worthy of great care. So if you have persistent problems, do seek help. You deserve to be heard.

Have you had problems with your voice? Did you find ways to overcome your challenges? Have you found that singing in a choir is helpful for your voice? Would you recommend it to others. And if so, why?

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The Author

Barbara Lewis is a Montreal-based singer, speaker and inspirational vocal coach who offers concerts, talks, voice lessons (in a Montreal studio and online). Barbara believes that “Singing is a powerful doorway to our happier, more peaceful selves.” Her concerts and teaching are central to this understanding.

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