Dad (early 70s) is making weird sounds constantly. What could it be?
January 21, 2016 9:45 PM   Subscribe

After some prolonged time with dear old dad in the car recently, I noticed he constantly makes weird little sounds and vocalizations when things are quiet. I don't think he has any idea he's doing this. What gives?

They sound like a pretty steady stream of the following:

* Quiet Throat clearing
* Mmming
* Loud verbalized swallowing
* A quiet "uh" stutter, like he's about to speak
* Vocalizing small sounds while breathing
* Lip smacking

It's basically like whatever he's doing with his throat, he's making vocalizations outloud to go along with it. It's like the "tennis grunt" but instead of happening every time he swings a racket, he's making tiny noises every time he swallows or moves his mouth or breathes.

Or you know how some people can choose to over-vocalize a sneeze? It's like he's doing that with every micromovement in his upper respiratory tract.

I find it super distracting, annoying, and to be honest, a little bit gross.

But you know, he's my dad, so I want to be sympathetic. It doesn't sound uniform enough to be a tic. He's a smoker and sometimes coughs a lot in the morning. He's fine in conversation and doesn't seem to have hearing problems, but maybe he doesn't hear himself doing this weirdness and doesn't realize it??

What the heck could this be?
posted by amoeba to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is he losing his hearing? I have noticed both my father and my cat (weirdly enough) are both WAY louder--just more random noises--since they started losing their hearing. My dad said he didn't realize he was making so many sounds.
posted by tippy at 9:57 PM on January 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

my dad makes weird little noises that seem to correlate with his (mild) hearing loss.
posted by mwhybark at 10:06 PM on January 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

My grandpa, who was ~65-85 while I knew him, was always making noises. Little humming breaths, the uhs, tons of mmms, basically everything you describe. He was playing wiffle ball and mowing the lawn into his early 80s, so it didn't seem to have any health ramifications, and I'm sure he wasn't that way when he was younger, but that's the only way I knew him.

I was always sure 90% of it was unconscious. His hearing was awful, and he refused to wear a hearing aid, so I'd say that plus the minor-league karate-movie vocalizations required for getting around as you get older are your likeliest explanations. (I'm not 30 yet and I already find myself making noises I don't recognize as I move around the house.). But every so often my grandpa would make a joke so dry it was clear he didn't care who heard it, raise his eyebrows like Jack Benny, and go "mmmm" in a way that definitely seemed like punctuation. So who knows.
posted by Polycarp at 10:11 PM on January 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

My MIL does this all the time and it is incredibly annoying when endured for long periods of time, like a car ride. She cannot abide uncomfortable (to her) silence and must fill every second with sounds. I think in her case it's anxiety and being uneasy with what she perceives to be awkward conversational lulls. I feel very stabby when left alone with her for any long period of time because she cannot be comfortable with herself and so makes me feel uncomfortable too. It is not just me; she is like this with anyone on a one on one basis.

Literally every other second (really) will be filled with loud sighs, her going hmmmm!! as if she just saw something surprising, saying the word wow over and over and over again, lightly humming a non-tune, clearing her throat, making a hacking coughing noise for no apparent reason other than to fill a quiet void, and then.... pretty much repeating the process. She is not hard of hearing. She is in her late 70s. She does not do this when there are lots of people around or is involved in something.

It is unbelievably irritating to be in a car with her, or to try to watch tv while she is around. So I feel ya. You said "he constantly makes weird little sounds and vocalizations when things are quiet". If that is truly the case (and not just that you yourself are noticing the noises because of the quiet), and he is voluntarily making noises when it is quiet, then perhaps he is a bit like my MIL and is trying to fill the silence up.
posted by the webmistress at 11:20 PM on January 21, 2016 [12 favorites]

My mother is in her early 60s but has been making little sounds like this for as long as I can remember. It might have something to do with increased hearing loss that her sounds have become more pronounced as she ages but as many above have said, the sounds seem to go away or, at least, settle down when she's engaged in another activity or when her grandkids are over and she's romping around with them.

My sister and I both think it's a nervous tic, something she developed during a difficult childhood and an abusive marriage to our father - a way to distract her mind when she shut down because of stress. Now that she's in a safe place where she doesn't have to worry about these factors, it has grown much milder but it still pops up at odd times. I find it obnoxious sometimes but try to remember that she's completely unaware of it and she's had to put up with my loud voice for 35 years so maybe I have to give her a pass on it.
posted by Merinda at 11:48 PM on January 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

My husband does this, and has done since we met. I call them his "old man noises" and find them endearing. And even after the initial romantic glow wore off, I decided to continue to find them endearing, because otherwise I suspect they would annoy the hell out of me.

(If this is a new thing, however, it may be something to look into)
posted by finding.perdita at 1:38 AM on January 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

My 99 year old grandmother has been doing this for some time, especially when eating. She is essentially deaf without her hearing aides. I just think of them as old age noises as well, no big deal but can be quite annoying. We just put some music on in the background and it covers them up nicely.
posted by koolkat at 2:01 AM on January 22, 2016

I read somewhere that less control over the musculature of the torso and throat, particularly the diaphragm, as the muscles get weaker with aging, can lead to more unconscious sound-making. (Like, grunting when standing is because you have to engage the diaphragm to do it, which requires slightly holding your breath, and then as you can less control over all those muscles you grunt when you release it instead of just breathing out.)

If that's part of what's contributing, core-stregthening exercise may help, like yoga or tai chi or weightlifting or whatever seems to be his speed. I'm not sure if there's anything you can do w/r/t the throat muscles or not.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:41 AM on January 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

How continuous a stream of sounds is it? Is it every few minutes? Or is it several times a minute? Because when you get "older" your body doesn't run as smoothly. Your throat NEEDs clearing, your teeth feel like something is stuck in them, your lips may stick together, even breathing can require conscious attention. If you get to live a long time, as you probably hope to do, you'll become gross too.

Source: I'm 70.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:44 AM on January 22, 2016 [25 favorites]

Has he ever choked (or thought he did) on something? When my father learned about the Heimlich maneuver in the mid-70's he put a pamphlet describing symptoms of choking and how to perform the HM on our fridge. One of the symptoms is "can't speak"; after I thought I choked on a raw carrot I started making small noises to reassure myself.
posted by brujita at 4:53 AM on January 22, 2016

It's continuous; more like every 3-5 seconds. And I don't notice him doing it in groups or when he's otherwise engaged. It's just when things are silent and nothing's happening.
posted by amoeba at 5:45 AM on January 22, 2016

I work in a hospital with an almost exclusively retired population. I'm in and out of different rooms all day long for 10-15 minute stretches and I'd say 20 percent of my patients do this. Some of them also have hearing loss but it doesn't always coincide. I used to think it was because they were nervous. But if I asked, most of them said they didn't realize they were doing it.
posted by mismatchedsock at 6:08 AM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is also a typical attribute of people with dementia. For that population it often expands to include repeated words or phrases. The author of the linked study suggests that the behavior is associated with anxiety or agitation and that the vocalizations are "self-soothing."

Just a shot in the dark, but I wonder if pet therapy or stress-relief toys would help. There's a bit of evidence out there that people who do this stop temporarily when a dog or cat is placed in their lap. In other words, if your dad does stop doing this when he's otherwise engaged in groups or in conversation, he might also stop if he has a visual-manual distraction of some kind.
posted by beagle at 6:42 AM on January 22, 2016

If you have the ability to get him into a neurological assessment (if you're lucky, there might be a a geriatric specialist in his area, but you could start with his regular MD if he has one), do that. These behaviors can be more or less a normal part of the cognitive decline of aging but might be indicative of a more serious (and/or treatable/manageable) cognitive or neurological or vascular disruption, symptom of a stroke, indicative of an untreated UTI (they manifest very strangely in the elderly) or other infection, and generally something to monitor.

And yes, they can also be self-soothing/stimming, as is often seen in young children with various stimulus processing disorders, but often in the elderly they can be associated with the crushing anxiety that comes with memory disruptions and cognitive decline. It may also be time to re-assess any/all medications he's currently on to see if any of them need changing, as some medications can cause that kind of tic behavior as a side effect.

The least likely answer is that he's doing it to be annoying. He's probably only marginally aware of it at best.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:06 AM on January 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know a woman who started doing this around age 70. Her hearing is great. She sniffs loudly every 2 minutes, clears her throat every 5 minutes, and makes little throat-clicking noises for 30 seconds after clearing her throat. They are normal noises but they happen way more than any throat or nose irritation could possibly warrant (also I asked her about it point-blank during a car ride one day, and she pretty much stopped it for the next hour, so I don't think the noises actually served any physical purpose). In her case I believe these noises are related to (undiagnosed) OCD / anxiety- she is a very anxious person and to me the noises sound self-soothing.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:21 AM on January 22, 2016

Life is better with sound effects. Maybe he's got that figured out?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:21 AM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lisinopril, a common blood pressure medication, has a side effect that can result in frequent throat-clearing (basically makes your mouth and throat dry). Older men are more likely to be on this.
posted by kindall at 11:36 AM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I work in an assisted living facility with residents aged 70-102. Nthing that this is definitely common among older adults. However, all of these sounds also make me wonder if he's experiencing respiratory symptoms (maybe increased secretions)? especially since he's a smoker. I would definitely talk to him about it, maybe talk to his doctor.
posted by pintapicasso at 12:02 PM on January 22, 2016

I've been pretty isolated for the last few years and my home is generally silent. I've started making a lot of tongue clicks and other noises almost constantly - I think this is just to remind myself that I'm here or something. In lieu of verbal feedback from other people I give myself some kind of feedback. Something similar could be happening with relatives who are losing their hearing. Lack of audible stimulus may be a cause here.
posted by bendy at 8:22 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

My wife 70 yrs old is a heavy drinker at night and is taking anti depressants too. She takes ambien at night to sleep now for the last few months she has been making noises constantly moaning mumbling also talking to herself. It's very annoying and other people are starting to notice. When I confront her about it she becomes very angry and tells me to be quiet. She is totally ignoring her problem and doesn't want to talk about it. What is it the booze or the pills or the combination?
posted by phamus8 at 9:53 AM on December 30, 2016

She's talking in her sleep, after drinking and taking ambien, is that correct? If you can, you should discourage that, I think, as according to this info page the combination can be deadly.

That said, upthread, a number of folks mention that unconscious or unselfconscious repetitive noisemaking can be a symptom of dementia, but I think that's a bit different than what you're describing here.

I also want to suggest that you'll have better luck with getting attention and answers (well, opinions) if you post this as a new question. Looks like you just joined today (welcome!) and that means you'll have to wait a week to do that.

Here's the sitewide FAQ which explains about the waiting period, and here's the link for posting a new question.

I'm sorry to hear that your wife is struggling with these issues. I'm sure it must be hard on you both. I hope we will be able to give you context and assistance to the degree it's possible.
posted by mwhybark at 12:47 PM on December 30, 2016

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