Mormons across the globe sing "come, listen to a prophet's voice." A University of Utah researcher did just that to learn about the relationship between aging and speech patterns.
Eric Hunter and his colleagues at the Salt Lake City-based National Center for Voice and Speech studied 50 years of sermons by the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who died in January 2008.
By plowing through recordings of Hinckley's Brigham Young University forum addresses spanning the years 1958 to 2007 (when he was between 48 and 97 years old), researchers could pinpoint exactly when the Mormon leader's pitch and breathing changed.
The research, a collaboration with several other U. groups, including its Center on Aging, discovered that, like most other American elders, Hinckley's voice underwent dramatic changes between ages 68 and 74.
"We have known for a long time that in normal aging, things start to happen with speech in the sixth or seventh decade," Hunter said Thursday. "In everyone, the pitch of a voice goes down throughout their life, but then it turns around and goes up. With President Hinckley, we could see the exact years it turned around."
During those years, Hunter said, Hinckley also began to take more breaths per word string.
The findings published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society are hardly unusual but provide a picture of aging voices with more specificity and clarity.
"No one has ever done such a longitudinal study before," he said.
Hinckley's BYU addresses provided a "unique opportunity for researchers," Hunter said, because they were all 40 minutes long in the same arena with the same goal for 50 years.
Other subjects, such as TV or radio personalities, might have as many speeches over a similar length of time, but the settings and audiences are varied.
"They often have a particular persona they want to portray, and they don't have the same speaking environment," he said. "Also, they may have had a voice coach to keep them from sounding old. President Hinckley would not have been concerned about that."
But Hinckley was no typical senior.
"He likely had good vocal health because of the church's standards, which prohibit the use of alcohol, tobacco and coffee," Hunter said. "All of those are risk factors affecting the voice."
Still, Hunter and his team see this research as particularly valuable and hope it will help health-care professionals treat the needs of the world's aging population.
O To hear Gordon B. Hinckley's voice, visit > http://tinyurl.com/7ebpm96