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Older Americans Conquering Stuttering

Overcoming condition with help of therapy

Every time Jim McClure thinks of a job that people who stutter can't do, he meets a stutterer who's doing it well.

They are doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, college professors and military officers. "We're a very diverse bunch. No two of us stutter the same. Most of us tend to stutter more on our names," says McClure, 67, a former Navy captain who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and is media relations director for the National Stuttering Association.

With expert speech therapy, people who stutter can overcome their challenges. And like King George VI, in The King's Speech — winner of four Academy Awards including best motion picture — they can reach their full potential.

The film has inspired people to seek help even if therapy did little for them in the past, says Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America, which provides free online resources to those who stutter and training programs for professionals.

Early intervention for preschoolers often prevents stuttering from becoming chronic. But for adults, the impact of stuttering on their lives and careers can be profound. About 3 million Americans and 1 percent of adults worldwide stutter. Roughly three to four times more men than women are affected.

The science of stuttering

New findings, published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, describe how stuttering may be inherited. A study led by scientists at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders identified three genes as a potential source of stuttering.

Stuttering

Colin Firth plays King George VI in The King's Speech. — Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company/Everett Collection

"This really points to sort of an underlying biological cause," says Dennis Drayna, a geneticist involved in the research. Emotional factors such as anxiety and nervousness compound the problem but are not at its root.

Therapy for adults aims to manage this anxiety while focusing on articulation, phrasing and rate of speech. "People of all ages benefit from good therapy," says Nan Bernstein Ratner, chair of the University of Maryland's Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

Speech therapists also teach stuttering modification, which is similar to training drivers how to maneuver during skids on ice. "Instinctively, people start to struggle and fight," Ratner explains. "They yank the wheel the wrong way." Expert therapy guides them in steering their way gently through stuttering moments.

Melodic intonation therapy can be effective as well. It uses singing to develop speaking in stroke patients, and it may benefit some stutterers, observes J.M. Balakrishnan, a speech therapist near Berkeley, Calif., and author of Yoga for Stuttering: Unifying the Voice, Breath, Mind and Body to Achieve Fluent Speech. Neurological research shows that one part of the brain controls singing while another area regulates speaking. Producing long, melodic tones helps reconnect the two. "People who stutter don't stutter when they sing," she says.

Treating the condition >>

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