Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Voice of Obesity

Contrary to what the title of this post may suggest, this is not about giving a voice to obesity in the sense of advocacy. No, this post is actually about how obesity can affect the voice.

In a paper, just published in OBESITY SURGERY, Maria Gabriela da Cunha and colleagues from the São Paulo University Medical School, Brazil, examined the voice feature characteristics in 45 adult volunteers of both sexes with a BMI greater than 35 compared to a control group of non-obese volunteers matched by sex, age, and smoking habits.

Using sophisticated examinations, the researchers found that the obese individuals exhibited several distinct modifications in voice feature, including hoarseness, murmuring, vocal instability, altered jitter and shimmer, and reduced maximum phonation times as well the presence of voice strangulation at the end of emission.

Not being an laryngologist, I can only guess what some of these terms mean (or sound like), but I do find it interesting (and perhaps not totally unexpected) that the vocal characteristics of individuals with obesity are objectively different than the voices of nonobese people.

After all, excess weight can be associated with abnormal fat deposits on various structures of the vocal tract including the uvula, soft palate, lateral and posterior walls of the pharyngeal walls, and the posterior region of the tongue. 

While I am not sure about the practical utility or implications of these findings, which I am filing away under “nice-to-know” and “so-what?”, I do wonder if we will be seeing voice recognition systems that will prompt obese speakers to perhaps seek medical counseling for their weight.

Toronto, Ontario

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2 Responses to “The Voice of Obesity”

  1. Mary Forhan says:

    I wonder if the results of this study will have implications on the use of voice recognition software used by persons with disabilities that limit key board use or voice activated electronic assistive devices such as door openers, light controls, temperature settings. Could also be interesting to the use of voice activated controls in some vehicles. Hmmm
    voice of an occupational therapist..

  2. Amy Salloway says:

    Hi, Dr. Sharma!
    Amy Salloway here again — your new fan from the theatre world. :) I wanted to share that as a actor, I’ve always been conscious of people’s vocal qualities — I listen to voices and think about vocal effectiveness, range, tone, etcetera, just because in the theatre scene, one is trained to think about voice (one’s “instrument”!) all the time. And I remember noticing years ago that there was — to my horror and dismay — a similarity to the voices of the largest people I knew, which I started thinking of in my head as “fat voice”. What I was noticing, I’m sure, was the constricted air flow and nasality that results from one’s airway being surrounded by more “body” – the sense of sound having to come up from more of a tunnel than usual — as well as heavier breathing, and lack of breath control. Anyway, being obese myself, I felt horrible and guilty and ashamed for giving people in my own community a label like that — but even so, I remember holding “Fat voice” up as a harbinger of doom for myself, a warning: if I ever gained so much weight that I got “fat voice”, it would affect my acting career, even MORE than my already-unfortunate high-pitched squeaky chipmunk voice was affecting it. Every now and then, when I listen to myself on tape or in a radio appearance, I worry, “has it happened — does my voice sound fat?”

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