Is your voice making you sound old—maybe older than you are or feel? If you’ve been having concerns about the quality of your voice, your answers to the following four questions might give some clues about what’s going on…

1. Do you have trouble speaking loudly or being heard in noisy situations?
• Never
• Sometimes
• Often

2. Do you run out of air and need to take frequent breaths when talking?
• Never
• Sometimes
• Often

3. Do you feel like you don’t know what sound will come out when you begin speaking?
• Never
• Sometimes
• Often

4. Do you have to repeat yourself to be understood?
• Never
• Sometimes
• Often

A weak, quavering “old person” voice is not an automatic accompaniment to accruing years. Many people still sound strong and vigorous in their 80s and 90s. If you answered sometimes or often to any of these questions, here’s what might be happening to your vocal cords and what you can do about it…

What happens: Your voice is produced when folds in your vocal cords come together while air from your lungs passes through the folds, causing them to vibrate and create sound waves. As you age, your muscle mass shrinks and your mucous membranes become thinner and drier as a normal process throughout your whole body. These changes include your vocal cords and cause the tissues in your throat to become less elastic and lose volume—so your vocal cords no longer come together as tightly or they may even gap. The condition, vocal cord atrophy and bowing, is technically called presbylaryngis or presbyphonia. The result—a weak or breathy voice.

The good news is that most voice disorders are treatable, especially if you see an ear, nose and throat specialist for help. You can find a more detailed voice-related quality of life quiz and an ENT locator on the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery site. You can also try an easy daily “workout” that will keep your vocal-cord muscles fit and your voice strong. (It will benefit your lungs, too!) The only “equipment” you need is a straw…and all you do is hum into the straw in a certain way.

What to do: Start with a wide drinking straw, and make a simple “hmmmm” or “oommm.” Do this daily for about 10 minutes, but stop if your voice begins to feel tired. As you build stamina, try a smaller-diameter straw, even working your way down to a hollow coffee stirrer—the narrower the straw, the greater the resistance to your airflow and the more robust the workout. Also vary the pitch of your humming—for example, imitate the two-tone sound of a siren or hum a tune.

In fact, there’s no need for voice strengthening to be a drudge—have some fun! Singing in the shower, crooning in the car, reading aloud, doing tongue trills—even making the motorboat sound that kids make with their lips—all help. But do avoid yelling, as that puts wear and tear on your vocal cords.