Voice-lift ops put aged back on song

The elderly are turning to a new kind of cosmetic surgery to restore the vocal power of their youth

The Sunday Times Published 16 September 2012 Lois Rogers

SURGEONS are reaping the rewards from Britain’s ageing population by offering treatments that can restore the youthful tone to voices.

With increasing numbers of elderly people wishing to remain in the workplace, the operations reduce the reediness in the voice that comes with old age and can, the surgeons claim, help to boost patients’ confidence.

For years the cosmetic surgery market has been dominated by those offering treatments such as breast enhancements and face-lifts.

However, so-called “voice-lifts” are now providing ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists with a lucrative opportunity. In particular, there is expected to be heightened demand from executives and businessmen who are increasingly likely to work into their seventies and eighties.

A growing number of specialists in Britain are enrolling on courses where phonosurgeons — experts in the field, usually from America — teach them the techniques required.

From about the age of 30, men’s voices begin to alter and show signs of ageing. In women the process may follow the menopause or not happen until much later.

Age-related weakening of the voice — called glottic insufficiency — occurs when the vocal cords lack the muscle tone to come together properly and produce the 100 or more vibrations per second of the adult male voice. Those affected often complain that the resulting thin and reedy voice carries little conviction during boardroom discussions or when addressing shareholder meetings.

In recent years, John Rubin, an ENT consultant at London’s Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear hospital, part of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, has pioneered the use in Britain of techniques developed in America.

The procedure involves the removal of fat from the stomach that is then injected into the folds of the vocal cords, bulking them up and boosting the strength and volume of the voice.

Patients — who require an overnight stay in hospital and pay up to £6,000 for the procedure — report a noticeable change in the way they sound. However, the recognisable character of a voice is unaltered because tone, pitch and modulation are caused by the lungs as well as individual mouth and tongue shape.

Rubin says some surgeons use collagen or other fillers — more commonly used to plump up lips — to achieve the same effect. However, he said that such treatments could make the vocal cords too stiff or have only a short-term effect.

“The bio-mechanical properties of fat aren’t that different from the vocal cords,” he said. “Fat has a high water content, so half of what is injected disappears within 36 hours. The rest stays put and will be effective for [up to] 18 months.”

A 67-year-old finance director from Surrey received the treatment in America, in part because the dwindling strength of his voice meant his partially deaf wife could no longer hear him.

The man, who asked not to be named, said: “I had it done two years ago and it seems to be holding up. I wouldn’t tell people but there is no question it has improved my speaking voice rather well.”

A series of courses designed to teach ENT surgeons how to use anti-wrinkle fillers, lasers and fat injections have been oversubscribed.

One course being held next week has 33 surgeons enrolled on it, half of them British ENT specialists. A further 10 are on a waiting list for the next course.

Yakubu Karagama, an ENT specialist at Manchester Royal Infirmary and Tameside Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, who has begun offering the training, said: “A lot of doctors and patients still don’t know we can do something about ageing voices but this field is growing rapidly, because we now have a variety of innovative techniques to help them.”

However, Karagama warned against classifying the use of plumping agents to boost ageing vocal cords alongside facial anti-wrinkle treatment.

“You need your voice to function properly. If it is not clear enough to give talks, run a lecture or be authoritative, that is a physical problem. It is not a cosmetic issue like wrinkles,” he said.