SALT LAKE CITY — Late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley received 10 honorary doctorate degrees, spoke at multiple college graduations and served as chairman of the board of trustees of a major private university. Thanks to a new study four years following his death at age 97, his voice literally still reverberates in Utah's halls of higher learning.
Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1995-2008, delivered 36 speeches at Brigham Young University during the final five decades of his life. The audio recordings from those discourses provided researchers from the National Center for Voice and Speech at the University of Utah with a treasure trove of data for a new study about how an individual's voice changes with age.
"Age-related changes in the voice may be linked with the changes in other key bodily functions such as breathing, swallowing and airway protection," lead researcher Eric Hunter said. "With President Hinckley, we could see the exact years his voice turned around."
Hunter said that aging effects — specifically, speaking pitch, speech breathing and rate of speech — appeared between the ages of 68–74, indicating a fundamental change in the speech mechanism.
The resulting article, "Understanding aging: A 50-year longitudinal study of speeches," appeared in the June issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Selecting Hinckley's voice
Hunter said that before settling on President Hinckley, his colleagues also considered studying the vocal patterns of other public figures who spoke in front of microphones on a regular basis while progressing toward very advanced ages — people like West Virginia's Sen. Robert Byrd.
Researchers ultimately selected President Hinckley in part because of his unique lifestyle, which included abstinence from common vocal irritants like smoking, coffee and alcohol.
"While his lifestyle may not be similar to much of the aging population," Hunter explained, "the absence of these irritants allows us to focus on only those changes to his voice which were brought on by aging alone."
Initially Hunter's team considered analyzing the speeches President Hinckley delivered every six months at the LDS Church's general conferences in Salt Lake City. But those discourses, which sometimes lasted less than 10 minutes, weren't long enough to leave sufficient room for analysis.
In lieu of mining the semiannual LDS conferences, the researchers instead turned their eyes southward to BYU — where President Hinckley's 36 speeches across 50 years consistently clocked in at around 40 minutes. The vast majority of the addresses occurred at campus devotionals held in the Marriott Center since 1971.
Methodology and significance
To stockpile apples-to-apples data, researchers selected segments from President Hinckley's speeches that begin five minutes into the respective address. Subsequently, Hunter's team applied a variety of analytical methods to make sense of the data influx — including measuring pitch, rate of speech and breathing patterns.
"It is routinely believed that a male's voice changes during puberty, but stabilized once he reaches his 20s," Hunter said. "However, (President) Hinckley's voice continued to deepen through his late 60's until his 'elderly voice' took over, at which point his vocal pitch began to rise."
Hunter acknowledges the need for further study on this topic that involves more than one subject, and his team is currently collecting data on additional subjects — including President Ezra Taft Benson, another past president of the LDS Church. Nonetheless, Hunter believes these results could yield immediate benefits.
"Perhaps most valuable about a study like this is that we now have detailed snapshots of how a voice ages in a very healthy older gentleman," he said. "The part of the human body that controls the voice also affects breathing and swallowing. Thus, if we can accurately track aging in the voice, we may be able to more accurately pinpoint potential health risks related to breathing and swallowing."
Hunter contends that this information is particularly important given that the world's over-50 population is not only the fastest growing demographic but also is significantly impacting society through its sheer numbers and historically long life spans. He believes these results could begin to define when a person's physical voice might begin to erode.
"Healthcare practitioners must understand and accommodate the needs of this population," he noted. "As the baby-boomer generation ages and people stay active in their careers longer, they need to maintain a healthy-sounding voice. And it's just easier to maintain than it is to build back up."