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Older Patients May Lose Voice Quality Over Time, Naturally

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"Depending on the diagnosis they have [Parkinson's, etc.]," Adler tells WebMD, "I will say to them I notice that their pitch is higher or lower, there's a tremor to your voice, you talk too slowly, too fast, whatever the case may be, and then I'll talk how that affects the quality of their life."

Adler says new research is definitely beneficial, though. He used as an example possible research into vocal changes in Parkinson's disease patients. "I may say to somebody that's had a Parkinson's evaluation, who's 74 years old, 'your voice is normal compared to other people just like you are, and therefore the research says there's no therapy I can do for you -- this is just going to be the normal neurological change that's going to occur,' or vice versa; it might say that there is something I can do," Adler tells WebMD.

Xue says he plans to conduct a larger, more extensive study on elderly voice patterns. The knowledge of the changes in some elderly voices, and the new norms that could be attached to that "buys them a peace of mind, otherwise, when they get old, people start to suspect some serious disease or some problem may be developing, especially those with a smoking or drinking history, they may suspect well, maybe I'm going to develop a laryngeal cancer or something, and that's not the case," Xue tells WebMD.

"It's important to develop separate norms or thresholds for the elderly folks, because we will see more and more elderly folks out there, and we just can no longer use the norms for the young to measure the voice[s] of the elderly," Xue says.

The study was largely funded by a grant from Arkansas State University, where Xue formerly taught. The study is co-authored by Dimitar Deliyski, a digital engineer formerly with Kay Elemetrics and now with Vocal Point. Kay Elemetrics developed the computerized model used in the study to analyze the data.

Vital Information:

  • As people age, vocal quality declines, which makes it difficult for speech pathologists to determine whether the change signifies an underlying medical condition.
  • Current norms for evaluating the voice are based on young and middle-aged people and are ineffective for an elderly population.
  • Digital technology may play a crucial role in developing a new set of norms for vocal testing in the elderly.
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