En español l A quick hello is all it takes for others to form a snap judgment of you, according to a 2014 study whose authors found that it takes no more than that one-word greeting for a listener to decide how likable and trustworthy you are. And, accurate or not, those instant impressions often stick.
As you enter your 60s and 70s, your voice starts to change. Your vocal folds weaken, cartilage in the larynx begins to ossify, and your respiratory system (which helps power your voice) begins to work less efficiently. The result? Men's voices go up, and women's go down. You may start to sound breathy or wobbly or hoarse. It's a common part of growing older, but it can affect how others think of you and how you think of yourself.
Don't let it. Here's a secret that voice experts say few people know: There's plenty you can do to keep sounding young and strong. Even better, many voice exercises are easy and require little time. Keep at them and your "Hello" may sound just like it always has.
Gradual voice changes are a normal part of aging, but it's not a bad idea to consult an ear, nose and throat specialist to rule out health problems. Hoarseness, for example, can be a sign of chronic acid reflux, Parkinson's disease and other neurological conditions, and laryngeal cancer.
1. Have fun with a straw
Like other muscles in your body, your vocal folds need exercise to stay fit. So does your respiratory system. Here's a simple workout for both: Grab a straw and hum into it. "It helps stretch and strengthen the muscles of the voice," explains Eric Hunter, an associate professor of communicative sciences and disorders at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Start with a wide straw and progress to a smaller one, such as a coffee stirrer, as your voice gets stronger. Warm up with simple "hmmm, hmmm" hums, then vary your pitch by imitating a siren. Do this for about 10 minutes a day. Stop sooner if your voice feels fatigued. As with any exercise, you'll build stamina over time.
2. Practice your storytelling
Reading aloud keeps your voice working, and that's crucial to vocal health, according to Aaron Johnson, an assistant professor of voice and speech science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. " 'Use it or lose it' applies to the voice," he says. "Do you start your day with the newspaper? Read one article out loud each morning — to your spouse, your pet or just yourself. You may feel shy or a little silly about it at first, but it's a great way to build some regular voice use into your day."
3. Sing along
"The benefits of healthy singing can't be underestimated," says Edie Hapner, director of speech language pathology at the Emory University Voice Center in Atlanta. "Trained singers have been found to be able to keep their vocal youth much longer than nonsingers." Sing along to the radio or a CD or join a church choir. Hapner also recommends karaoke, with a caveat: If the joint's really rocking, you'll have to compete with a lot of noise in order to be heard. Look for somewhere quieter. Go too loud for too long, says Hapner, and you may lose your voice to laryngitis, a swelling of your vocal folds.
4. Move it or lose it
Your voice works best when your whole body's in good shape, Hapner notes. "Your voice is a reflection of your health," she says. "If you let your body become deconditioned, people are going to hear that in your voice." So be sure to stay physically active. Even an exercise as simple as walking can provide fitness benefits that extend to your voice.
5. Go pro
Humming into straws, singing your favorite songs, reading out loud — these and other exercises can help keep your voice youthful. But you have to practice them correctly to benefit. To do that, seek out a vocal coach, a singing instructor or a vocologist, a speech language pathologist with additional training in voice. Such experts, says Johnson, a former singing teacher himself, will evaluate your voice, teach you exercises tailored to your needs, and work with you to be sure you're doing them right.
"You can learn a lot in just a few lessons," he points out. Vocal therapy may also be right for you. Effective therapies for the aging voice teach exercises that build up the voice muscles and the respiratory system. Once you learn them, you can practice at home; only a few minutes a day can help your voice. Be sure to check with your insurance company to make certain you're covered. Although Medicare and Medicaid will pay for voice therapy that a doctor deems medically necessary, some private insurers won't, says Johnson.
"This is an area of contention in our field and something we are continually working on." Such therapy is likely to become much more common thanks to increasing awareness and demand from boomers, who will want and need strong voices in the workplace and elsewhere. "Our voices are much more important to us," says Hapner, who observes that many boomers will continue to work past the traditional retirement age of 65. "I predict that I am going to be busier."
Matt McMillen is a freelance writer for AARP Media.