The Surprising Health Hazards of Noise
During the widespread shutdowns in response to the pandemic this spring and early summer, it was almost impossible not to notice one welcome result: a sudden drop in noise pollution around your neighborhood. Depending on your location, you may have seen a slight decrease in cars up and down your street, for example. Or you maybe saw a major decline of nearby construction work.
Either way, you probably welcomed the newfound quiet. Our family practice doctors did, too, not only for the unusual peace and quiet, but also for the positive effect it conferred on people’s health.
More than ‘just noise’
You may think the everyday noises around us are merely irritating. Things like leaf blowers and sirens from emergency vehicles and the back-up beepers on delivery trucks waft briefly into our consciousness and are quickly forgotten.
But even though we’ve come to accept these things as the price of civilization, it turns out that all this ambient noise can have a serious impact on our health. Numerous studies have found that such constant exposure to noise pollution may increase the risk of coronary artery disease, hypertension, and heart failure.
One study published recently in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, for example, examined research on noise pollution and heart disease. Researchers found loud sounds disrupt sleep, which can lead to health problems by itself. It also triggers the stress response, which releases a rush of hormones that can eventually damage the heart.
Lead study author Thomas Munzel told The Washington Post that unwanted environmental noise is a significant a risk factor for heart disease, as well as for high cholesterol and obesity.
“Ten years ago, people were saying that noise is just annoying, but now I think there’s considerable evidence that noise makes you sick, and one of the predominant diseases is cardiovascular disease,” he said.
Especially damaging are unexpected noises such as a sonic boom, a nearby explosion, or a sudden jackhammer. These trigger a stress response as the body prepares itself for the fight-or-flight response. This then sets off an internal alarm system to respond to the unexpected threat.
Your body then releases a surge of adrenaline. This increases the heart rate and elevates blood pressure, producing a cascade of negative effects: constricted arteries, long-term damage to blood vessels, and an increased tendency for blood to clot, which causes heart attacks and strokes.
More studies, more evidence
This research confirms the results of earlier studies that linked loud noise to heart disease. A 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) examined older people exposed to aircraft noise. They faced increased risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, especially when exposed at high levels. HSPH researchers teamed up with the Boston University School of Public Heath. Together they found zip codes with higher aircraft noise had a 3.5 percent higher cardiovascular hospital admission rate.
The researchers analyzed the relationship between noise from 89 U.S. airports. They studied the correlation between cardiovascular-related hospitalizations from approximately six million study participants.
“In speculating about how aircraft noise might be liked to higher rates of cardiovascular hospitalizations among older people,” HSPH wrote, “the researchers noted that noise has been previously linked with stress reactions and increased blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” Their study, they said, confirmed these previous findings.
It’s not just humans
Other studies on mice and birds have shown similar results. A 2018 study from the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences examined birds that lived within 75 yards of a natural gas compressor. These compressors emit a continual low-frequency hum. These birds showed the same physiological symptoms as humans with post-traumatic stress disorder: elevated stress hormones in the blood and failure to thrive.
Another more recent study from Germany this spring exposed healthy mice to just four days of aircraft noise. These mice experienced elevated blood pressure, oxidative stress, and inflammation in the cardiovascular system. A similar study revealed DNA damage in mice exposed to the same noise. This also increased their risk for certain cancers.
Some ideas to reduce noise pollution
We hope we convinced you that constant exposure to noise pollution can be unhealthy. Here are a few steps you can take to mitigate its effects.
- Keep your windows closed as much as possible, and/or install triple-pane windows in your home.
- Install wall-to-wall carpeting, which helps muffle noise.
- Use earplugs when sleeping or when exposed to excess noise during the day.
- Sleep with a “white noise” machine to block out nighttime noises.
- Install a tall wood fence, which can absorb strong sound waves coming onto your property.
- Try relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation. They help calm the central nervous system when it is constantly over-stimulated by noise.
Be aware of the effects noise pollution can have on your overall health. Try to minimize or avoid it as much as possible. And if you have any questions about this or any other health issue, please feel free to contact us.