Ageing affects all voices, and often in ways that we perceive to be negative, based on our experience of our own younger voices.
- The vocal folds dry out in a similar way to other mucous membranes – often leading to a feeling of sticky residue requiring coughing to clear.
- Muscles can atrophy with lack of use, leading to a weaker voice that is less easy to control
- The larynx can sit lower in the throat, leading to a higher tension on the vocal folds, making the perceived range lower.
- Laryngeal cartilage will calcify over time, and the muscular joints operating the opening and closing of the folds become stiffer leading to problems closing the cords completely leading to breathiness.
- After a long period (years) of non-singing or quiet conversation during post-menopausal years, the folds can atrophy and thin and “curve” leading to an inability to close completely. This will make the voice sound weak, breathy and lead to breaks in the range, and a lack of control or “yodelling” (sudden unexpected pitch change without intention) and a lack of vocal stamina. This is called glottal or glottic insufficiency.
It is important to understand that all these are the natural effects of ageing and insufficient exercise in the vocal cord muscle group. They are not a sign that there is anything wrong with the throat or voice, and should be viewed as a wake-up call to get things moving!
HOW CAN I TREAT THIS?
Depending on your age, and willingness to undergo surgical treatment, there are operations that can be done. You should talk to your GP, and ask for a referral to an ENT appointment, where you can discuss the issues you are experiencing. There is a voice clinic in Queen’s Medical Centre that you may be able to get a referral to, and the specialist practising there is Mr Julian MacGlashan who is the best in the country.
For those who are not keen on chasing through the medical profession, there are several things you can do at home.
- Practice closure of your larynx:
- Take a deep breath and hold it. Keep that breath held and then swallow. After swallowing, cough. Repeat 10 times.
- Inhale and hold your breath tightly. Bear down as if you were having a poo (sorry for the indelicacy!), and whilst bearing down, swallow. Repeat 10 times.
- Take a breath. Hold it as you bear down for a few seconds. Release gently. Repeat 10 times.
- Hold your breath tightly. Put both hands under your chair and pull up as if trying to lift the chair with you in it. Let go of your breath gently whilst saying, “aaaahhhhh”. Relax and repeat.
- Hold your breath tightly. Turn your head left. Let go of the breath with a gentle “aaaah” whilst the head is turned. Relax. Repeat with head on other side.
You can also perform simple exercises at home:
- Put a wide straw into a half-full bottle of water. Hum a simple tune through the straw, making the water bubble. Do this for at least 5-10 minutes.
- Sing along with your favourite songs – don’t worry about whether you can hit all your notes, just enjoy singing along. Sing every day without exception. Sing until your voice and throat feel tired.
- Drink a LOT of water. Not tea or coffee, which will dry out your mucous membranes, but constant water. Buy yourself a pretty water bottle and keep it by your side constantly. Aim to drink at least 1.5 litres of water per day. We are aiming at keeping your mucous membranes moist and supple, and they need water to do that.
- Talk a lot! Keep your voice in constant use, and don’t consciously try to be quiet. Every time you exercise your voice, you are making a step towards vocal health.
- Vocal warm up exercises are good – ask your choir leader for some suggestions if you don’t know any yourself.
Most importantly – don’t feel angry at what you’ve lost. As we all age, our bodies and voices change, and reflect our journeys. Sing with the voice you have now, whatever you think it sounds like. Remember that this is the same voice that sang to children, took wedding vows, gentled animals and shouted in strength. Be kind to yourself and your voice. Celebrate the journey that it has taken.
It isn’t the same as when you were 20, but that is part of the beauty of it, too.
DON’T. STOP. SINGING.
Your voice is beautiful, with all of its strengths, weaknesses, breaks and breathiness. Remember that!