Age-related vocal changes often misdiagnosed, study finds

November 19, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO - A new study of people age 70 to 80 suggests that the human voice undergoes many changes during the normal aging process, returning some men to the higher-pitched tone they once had before adulthood and leaving some women with a deeper voice.

Researchers say the study points to the need for an acoustical test to accurately monitor potential voice disorders in the elderly. Currently, speech pathologists use tests based on the voice patterns of young and middle-aged people, which can lead them to confuse normal vocal changes related to aging with a voice or speech disorder.

"We know that there is a natural aging process and that it affects the voice," said Steve Xue (pronounced SHWA), assistant professor of hearing and speech sciences at Ohio University and lead author of the study. "We wanted to know if those vocal changes were sufficient enough to warrant a diagnostic test for older people. Clearly, they are."

The study, which included 21 men and 23 women, was completed last year and presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in San Francisco.

Researchers collected voice samples and examined frequency, pitch, tone and other vocal characteristics from the elderly study participants and compared those findings with earlier studies of young and middle-aged people. Using acoustical devices currently employed by speech pathologists ­ which are based on normal speech by younger people ­ the researchers found that the elderly study participants had significantly poorer vocal quality than their younger cohorts.

In addition to the higher frequency noted in men and the lower tones recorded in women, the researchers also found that study participants had a harder time keeping a stable tone when speaking and often had voices that were harsher and more hoarse than those of younger people.

While Xue is interested in the study's findings about age-related changes in voice, he said the implications of the work are most immediate for clinicians. Until now, speech pathologists had very little data to indicate the normal voice and speech patterns of the elderly, which they can use with conventional acoustical tests to accurately identify problems and prescribe treatment. But this research provides some normative data, Xue said.

"If you use a younger person's yardstick to measure an older person's problems, you are likely to have a misdiagnosis," he said. "Speech pathologists should be cautious in diagnosing speech problems in the elderly because they will have quite different voice and speech patterns than what the test will measure. If these tests indicate a problem, they can look at the normative data we've collected and form a more accurate diagnosis."

Xue plans to conduct another study on elderly voice patterns with a larger study group, continuing the work he began while a faculty member at Arkansas State University and the University of Houston. In addition to studying vocal changes, he plans to examine the physiological age-related changes in the human vocal tract ­ the tube from the larynx to the lips.

The research was co-authored by Dimitar Deliyski, a digital engineer formerly with Kay Elemetrics Corp. in New Jersey, now with Vocal Point, Inc. in San Francisco. Xue holds an appointment in the College of Health and Human Services.
Written by Kelli Whitlock.

Ohio University

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