DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Don’t let your voice age you, practise singing in the shower!
Have you noticed that as you’ve got older your voice has changed? While the most obvious differences occur with teenage boys as they go through puberty, our voices also alter when we hit middle age, and then again as we go into old age.
It’s not just the pitch, but the strength that changes. This summer quite a few ageing rock stars have done live shows and while some, such as Bruce Springsteen, have reportedly been impressively strong-voiced, others such as Blondie and Elton John — of course, still brilliant performers — were perhaps past their prime vocally.
So what is Bruce Springsteen’s secret and how can you keep your voice in good condition?
Although we are all too aware of the greying hair, expanding waistline and hearing loss that occur as we age, those sometimes subtle changes that happen to our voices over time may be less obvious to us.
In fact, for women it’s not just age: when a woman is pregnant — and after she has given birth — her voice becomes ‘deeper and more monotonous’.
Have you noticed that as you’ve got older your voice has changed?
That’s according to Dr Kasia Pisanski, a researcher in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group at Sussex University, based on analysis of the voices of 20 mothers, recorded before and after pregnancy, and after they gave birth.
She was inspired to do this study by the singer Adele, who revealed a few years ago that when she was pregnant her voice got ‘a lot lower’, making it easier for her to belt out certain songs, including Skyfall, the theme song for the James Bond movie which requires demanding low notes.
Dr Pisanski suggests this could be due to hormonal changes affecting the vocal cords, or that women, after giving birth, are unconsciously deepening their voices to sound more authoritative.
A s she explained: ‘Research has shown that people with low-pitched voices are typically judged to be more competent, mature and dominant, so it could be that women are modulating their own voices to sound more authoritative, faced with the new challenges of parenting.’
My top tip for a trim waistline
Does having a higher BMI (body mass index) matter? Well, a recent U.S. study found that people classed as ‘overweight’, based on their BMI, lived the longest.
It’s not clear why but one of the problems with BMI is it doesn’t tell you how much of body weight is fat and where this fat is distributed.
My BMI, 24.6, is within the healthy range, between 18.5 and 24.9. But for people from certain black, Asian or other ethnic groups, the healthy BMI cut-off may be 23, because they’re more prone to putting on fat around the stomach, which raises the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
When I gain weight it goes around my stomach and neck — my trousers start to strain, I snore loudly and my blood sugar and blood pressure soar. So personally I don’t pay much attention to my BMI, but rather keep an eye on my waist line (ideally it should be less than 37in/94cm for men; 31.5in/80cm for women).
Wearing a tight belt is my top health tip because it’s a reminder when it’s time to go easy on the snacks!
Whatever the explanation, this effect is temporary. The major, long-term changes to our voices occur as we enter our 50s and 60s when, according to the British Voice Association, women’s voices tend to get deeper, while men’s become higher pitched. The sound of our voice is made as air is forced past our larynx (or voice box). This causes the vocal cords to vibrate, producing sound — the more vibration, the higher the pitch. The pitch is influenced by the length and tightness of the vocal cords — the sound produced then resonates in your throat, nose and mouth to produce your voice.
In women, the drop in levels of sex hormones after the menopause means changes to the vocal cords that make the voice lower, rougher and breathier.
However men are more likely to develop an age-related condition called presbylarynx, where the vocal cords become thinner and stiffer. This makes the voice sound hoarser, weaker and higher pitched. As far as I can tell, this hasn’t happened to me yet.
Presbylarynx can be treated with voice therapy or even a voice lift, which involves injecting the vocal folds with a filler, such as hyaluronic acid (the same stuff used to make lips look plumper).
The best thing, however, is to try to protect your voice as much as possible from the ravages of age.
For starters, you could take up singing in the shower; singing is a great way of keeping your vocal muscles in shape and the steam will also re-hydrate your throat.
Studies have shown that trained singers manage to keep their voices younger for longer, and on top of that you get the other benefits of singing, which include improved mood, reduced anxiety and even relief of chronic pain.
Other ways to keep your voice from fading include keeping your vocal cords well-lubricated, by drinking plenty of water (try, at a minimum, to drink a large glass of water with every meal). Reading out loud, humming through a straw, or blowing into a straw when it’s immersed in liquid (the sort of thing you did when you started blowing bubbles in your milk as a child) are also supposed to be good for your vocal cords, by working muscles that help give your voice resonance.
Professional singers look after their voices by not smoking and avoiding too many shouty, boozy late-night parties.
In a recent interview Bruce Springsteen said: ‘When I’m on the road, I’m pretty much a monk. I do the show, I go back to the hotel.’
He added: ‘It seems like people burn their voices out, not on stage but talking in a nightclub. I always found that if I burned my voice out, it was because I stayed up after the show for three to four hours.’
So if you want to sound like the Boss when you are in your 70s, don’t smoke and try to keep your ‘shouting loudly in nightclubs’ to a minimum.
People who work in noisy environments may want to take their chats outside.
And work on your posture, as that can make a big difference to how powerfully you project.
Keeping your spine straight, shoulders back and head high will give your lungs room to expand and allow your vocal cords to stretch, both of which will keep you sounding younger than your years for years.
Why I prefer full-fat milk to the watery versions
When I was a child, almost everyone drank full-fat milk.
Then in the 1970s we were warned that the saturated fat in dairy would block our arteries and make us fat. So we switched from butter to margarine, and from full-fat milk to watery, skimmed milk.
Partly as a result, we Brits now drink a third less cow’s milk than 30 years ago, and most of what we consume is skimmed or semi-skimmed.
I, however, have gone back to having butter, full-fat milk and full-fat Greek yoghurt — partly because I prefer the flavour, but also because there’s increasing evidence that giving up full-fat dairy is unlikely to make you healthier. Take, for example, the results of a huge study published earlier this month in the European Heart Journal, involving 147,000 people.
I have gone back to having butter, full-fat milk and full-fat Greek yoghurt — partly because I prefer the flavour, but also because there’s increasing evidence that giving up full-fat dairy is unlikely to make you healthier [File image]
It showed that to minimise your risk of a heart attack or stroke, your best bet is to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish — and full-fat milk.
The same research team previously found that people who consumed at least two servings a day of full-fat dairy had a 24 per cent lower risk of metabolic syndrome (a combination of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity) than those who didn’t consume any. Why might this be so? It turns out that the saturated fat in full-fat dairy doesn’t seem to be the sort that’s bad for you.
A study in the journal PLOS Medicine in 2021 found that people with higher levels of dairy fat markers in their blood had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
And because it contains more fat, which helps fill you up, there’s evidence that full-fat milk can help you stay slim.
A review in 2019, based on 28 studies, found that children who drank whole milk had a 40 per cent lower chance of being overweight or obese compared with those who had reduced-fat milk.
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