After singing professionally for about 25 years, Toronto musician Benjamin Stein found he was losing his voice.
His sounded raspy and he began losing his range. Suddenly, he wasn't able to hit high notes the way he used to. Over time, his singing had damaged his vocal cords.
"I couldn't sing any more," Stein says, who is a choral singer and music teacher. "I couldn't do the work that I was getting paid for."
So Stein turned to voice rejuvenation therapy, electing to undergo laser treatment to reverse the damage to his vocal folds, more commonly known as vocal cords.
Professional singers such as Stein aren't the only ones seeking voice rejuvenation, sometimes referred to as "voice lifts," which involve laser treatments, injectable gels or surgical implants to repair one's voice. Over the past year and a half, speech-voice pathologist Aaron Low and his team at Toronto's The Voice Clinic have also provided voice rejuvenation treatments to lawyers, professors and seniors from a variety of backgrounds wanting to improve their voices and sound younger.
Low says older adults tend to experience some muscle atrophy as they often do not speak as much and as dynamically when they're in their 70s and 80s as they did in their 20s and 30s. As people age, their vocal folds, like their skin, also tend to become drier and loose or flacid, making them sound breathy and monotone. And long-term smoking can make one's voice sound rough and wet.
For many, these changes can affect their quality of life, Low says.
"If they're losing a little bit of power from their voice, it can be that they seem weaker to the people around them, that they feel that their voice isn't being heard," he says, adding that some people may become more sensitive to irritants as they age and develop a persistent tickle in their throats, which can make them cough constantly. "When we see that, we start to see that people are being avoided because someone says that they think they're sick, but they're not sick. Their voice is just reacting almost like a spasm."
Low's team typically performs one of two types of voice rejuvenation procedures. They use laser treatments to tighten and increase the vibrancy of the pitch of patients' voices, which Low describes as "shrink-wrapping the vocal cords' cover back onto the voice muscle." Or they inject a gel into the voice folds, similar to Botox injections, which augments the cords, getting rid of wrinkles and sagging to allow them to vibrate. The effects of the latter can last three months to two years, depending on the gel.
"The dynamics between the muscles and the skin bring back the pure tone of their voice," Low explains.
Dr. Jennifer Anderson, chief of the department of otolaryngology and director of the voice clinic at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, also performs procedures for aging voices. The most common patients she sees for these procedures are men in their 60s to 70s, who still use their voice professionally.
Anderson provides vocal fold gel injections or surgical implants, placing a silicone block that is carved during surgery to restore the shape of the patient's vocal fold.
The risks involved in these procedures are "pretty minimal," Anderson says, noting the implant procedure is completely reversible.
Low, however, notes that the voice rejuvenation procedures his clinic offers, which typically cost up to $2,500, are not for everyone. They would not be performed, for instance, on individuals who have normal vocal cords, whose voices sound "old" due to musculoskeletal issues.
For Stein, who underwent the laser treatment last July, the treatment and recovery were painless. For about two weeks afterward, he let his voice rest, avoiding even whispering. But gradually, he began using it again and went back to singing a few months ago. While he finds his voice doesn't necessarily sound younger, he does find it is markedly clearer.
"It's doing what I need it to do," he says. "So, yeah, I'm quite happy, really."