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Understanding Elderly Voice Disorders

Understanding Elderly Voice Disorders
Kevin Cleary

Aging brings with it wisdom and, unfortunately, potential health problems. As we get older, our voices can change and lose strength or quality. While a lot of this can be normal wear and tear, believe it or not, vocal disorders in the elderly can be commonplace and play a negative role in their quality of life. We may not be able to project our voice as boisterously as we did in our youth!! Identifying and understanding voice disorders for the elderly can help potential voice therapy. In this article, we'll discuss these vocal disorders and some of their symptoms. If you suspect you or an elderly loved one might be suffering from a vocal disorder, you should see your ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT), a.k.a. otolaryngologist, or a speech therapist for voice therapy.

Symptoms and Causes of Voice Loss In the Elderly

Yes, aging does affect our vocal cords and voice, but when do we step over the line from a low voice to a vocal disorder? One study found that the prevalence of voice disorders among the elderly is estimated to range from 4.8% to 29.1%. These vocal disorders have a great biological/psychosocial impact, leading to disadvantages in communicative efficiency and quality of life. The vast majority of voice disorders can be managed or treated and are not life-threatening, but they can affect our elderly loved ones' quality of life. Symptoms of voice disorders in the elderly include:

  • Constant clearing of the throat
  • A hoarseness that lasts several days
  • Trouble speaking/breathing at the same time
  • Throat pain while speaking
  • Jerky, quivering voice that’s breathy

Our voice is a result of air moving through our voice box, causing vibrations in our larynx. It is vocal cords that also help close our voice box during swallowing so you don’t inhale food or liquids. When anything interrupts this vibration, it results in a low voice or sudden loss of voice, depending upon the cause and severity.

5 common causes of voice disorders

  1. Laryngitis: This is caused by swelling of the vocal cords. Common causes of laryngitis include a chronic cough, using inhalers for asthma, and GERD.
  2. Gastric Reflux: Esophageal reflux is caused by stomach acid backing up into the throat and coating the vocal cords.
  3. Spastic Dysphonia: This long-term vocal disorder causes the voice to fluctuate, seize up, or even sound shaky and strained. It’s caused by uncoordinated movement of muscles controlling vocal cords.
  4. Vocal Cord Paralysis: Your vocal cords can be partially or totally paralyzed. This is often caused by a viral infection, a nerve injury, stroke, or cancer.
  5. Vocal Cord Growths: These are caused by extra growths on the vocal cords, preventing them from functioning properly. These can be in the form of cysts, papillomas, or nodules.
  6. Nerve Problems: Diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can affect the nerves that control the vocal cords.

Most voice disorders aren’t life-threatening and can be treated. Your doctor or otolaryngologist has several ways of diagnosing vocal disorders. This can be through the use of tests that include a laryngoscope, stroboscope, laryngeal electromyography (EMG), or other imaging tests such as X-rays or MRIs. After diagnosis, your doctor may treat your voice disorder with: 

  • Lifestyle changes
  • Speech therapy
  • Medicine
  • Injections or surgery

There are many different options for treatment, and each one depends on what is causing your specific voice disorder. One obvious reason for the loss of your voice is a strained voice due to throat abuse. A good rule of thumb is…no yelling!!

Caregiver Red Flags

For caregivers and family members alike, identifying any potential red flags early can allow for early intervention and voice therapy before any voice disorder becomes serious. Look for these vocal disorder red flags: 

  • Voice change accompanied by swollen neck
  • Choking or swallowing difficulty
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Noisy, high-pitched breathing accompanying vocal changes
  • Vocal hoarseness lasting 1-2 weeks

Wisdom isn’t the only thing we gain with age. Unfortunately, diminished vocal capabilities can be a byproduct of getting older. Please visit your ENT if you think your sore, raspy voice may be caused by something other than yelling at your spouse!!

Products To Deal With Voice Disorders



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HPFY Kevin Cleary

Kevin Cleary

Kevin Cleary has been a Health Products For You contributor for many years and has a degree in marketing. His health and wellness journey has a very personal meaning and has guided him in his content writing for HPFY.

In 2006, ...

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