Two-Thirds of Americans Live With Voice Disorders


Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton may be miles apart in their opinions about how to deal with the Middle East crisis ,but they do have one thing in common: They both live with something called cheerleader's voice syndrome.

When Clinton fires off a verbal warning to the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, she tries to project authority and confidence, but instead her vocal cords rub together too forcefully and create a sound that's abnormally tense and grating. And when Palin shouts "Drill baby drill!" it comes across as shrill baby shrill.

Few would argue with these bipartisan auditory observations.

Women More Likely to Grate Speech

"Cheerleader's voice syndrome is just one of the many voice problems American's suffer from," said Russian-born opera singer turned voice coach Elena Zoubareva, who, with the help of a Harvard ears, nose and throat specialist and speech language pathologist, has developed a new voice training program called FitVoice.

Zoubareva said that about two-thirds of Americans -- more than 28 million people -- experience voice problems daily. The damaged voice boxes of schoolteachers alone cost American taxpayers $2.5 billion in missed workdays each year.

To Zoubareva's ear, women are usually worse offenders than men. "Many women speak like this," she said, dropping her voice several throaty octaves to verbally illustrate her point. "They sound from the chest and there is a tendency to speak lower than their optimum pitch level."

The reason for this, Zoubareva speculated, is that consciously or subconsciously, women believe lower tones are sexier and will get them noticed more in business and by the opposite sex. Like the squeaky cheerleaders, those with this so-called Bogart Bacall syndrome are also trying to exude more confidence, strength and authority. Think of Lauren Bacall, the syndrome's namesake, as the worst-case scenario.

"In the beginning, Bacall had a much higher, normal sounding voice," Zoubareva said. "But somewhere along the line she was probably advised by a director or producer to try to sound sexier, and so she learned to lower her voice quite a bit."

Men have diction friction too

For their troubles, both groups of women are often rewarded with nodules, which form like calluses on the vocal cords. These can eventually harden and scar to produce a permanently hoarse, strained speaking voice.

Lest men feel smug about their sonorous superiority, they should be reminded of their own special brand of phonotraumatic habits. Zoubareva identified a problem she dubbed sports fans voice, acquired after years of listening to the Red Sox fans in her adopted hometown of Boston scream themselves into a voiceless frenzy by the end of every game. All that unfettered shouting and cheering can lead to the growth of polyps on the vocal folds, which can so damage the voice, that they might require surgical repair.

The poster child for this syndrome is Steven Tyler, Aerosmith's frontman and lately the "voice" of American Idol -- so to speak. Hitting all the rock and roll high notes and all the lows of a rock star lifestyle beat up his vocal cords to such an extent that they ruptured and started to bleed. Fortunately, with surgery, rest and retraining, he recovered his vocal instrument. A recent National Geographic documentary included close-ups of his vocal folds vibrating together, like Eric Clapton's guitar strings as he reached and held the signature notes of "Dream On."

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