Q: My voice seems to be changing as I get older. Is this normal?
A: Vocal cords age along with the rest of the body. These twin bands of connective tissue are located in the voice box (larynx), just above the windpipe (trachea). When you speak, the cords move together and vibrate, creating sound.
With aging, the vocal cords become thinner and the cartilage in the larynx becomes less flexible. It’s not uncommon for a man’s voice to become higher pitched and a woman’s to become lower, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. Your voice can become hoarse or raspy and you may not be able to project as loudly as you once did. In addition, vocal tremors involving changes in the muscles of the larynx (or other parts of the speech system) may become noticeable as you get older.
Various factors can adversely affect vocal cords at any age, including smoking, secondhand smoke, and other pollutants; a cold or laryngitis; allergies; very dry conditions; dehydration; excessive alcohol intake; and severe emotional stress. Certain drugs (such as antihistamines, inhaled steroids, and some antidepressants) can contribute to hoarseness. So can reflux of stomach acids, particularly while you sleep, as well as tumors. Fatigue from overuse of vocal cords and poor vocal techniques that strain your voice can also take their toll.
If you experience temporary vocal difficulties, such as hoarseness, you may have some idea what the problem is. Maybe your voice just needs a rest or you have an upper respiratory infection. But if these problems persist for more than two weeks or so, especially in the absence of a cold or flu, or if you experience changes in breathing, difficulty swallowing, or swelling in the neck along with voice changes, seek medical advice.
If age-related changes in your voice bother you, talk to your health care provider to see if there are any underlying factors that can be treated to alleviate the problem. You may be referred to a speech-language pathologist with a specialty in voice therapy, who can help you better use and project your voice. If that is not enough, an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat specialist) or a laryngologist (a larynx specialist) can help restore your voice by injecting a filler to “plump up” aging vocal cords or by repositioning vocal cords with surgical implants.
The AARP provides these five simple strategies to help improve your voice so you don't “sound old.”
A version of this article appeared in UC Berkeley Health After 50.