How Noise Hurts You

January 29, 2020

It doesn’t just hurt your hearing. Your heart and sleep are at risk, too.

Noise isn’t just irritating. It harms your health.

What’s too loud?

Normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawnmower is about 90 dB, and a loud rock concert could hit 120 dB. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t need to raise your voice to talk to someone an arm’s length away. But that’s exactly what you have to do to have a conversation in a bar at happy hour.  One study of more than 2,000 Manhattan restaurants concluded that during peak days and hours 60% of the bars were dangerously loud.  If you’re a guest you can leave, but the people who work in these places are threatened with hearing loss.

There are many sources of background noise. You might be afflicted by the noise of a drill doing road repair outside your office window.  Maybe you sit near an elevator shaft and hear it thud when it lands.  In an apartment building, your neighbors might get into noisy drunken battles.

Some researchers argue that age-related hearing decline may be largely caused by the accumulated effects of noise.  More than 8.5% of adults aged 55 to 64 have disabling hearing loss, and the number jumps to nearly 25% in the next decade and 50 percent past age 75. Tinnitus—phantom sounds no one else can hear—are also generally caused by damage from noise.

Loud noise affects your entire body if it triggers a stress response.  Road traffic and aircraft noise, for example, increase the risk of heart disease by six percent for every 10 decibels, according to a 2018 study.  When your body perceives a threat, it pumps out cortisol and other hormones and promotes inflammation, as if you were fighting an infection, which is a burden on your heart.

Several risks rise if your sleep quality is affected. Scarily, night-time noise can affect you even if you think you’re sleeping through it. At night, your blood pressure should fall and give your heart a rest. But noise can wake up your nervous system even if you’re not conscious of it and prevent that drop.

Sleep disruption may contribute to breast cancer, according to research on women living near an airport.  (Night shift work is also linked to the disease.) Similarily, night-time noise may raise your risk of diabetes, which poor sleep disrupts your endocrine system.  A 2015 overview, in fact, concluded that exposure to noise at home of over 60 decibels was linked to about 21 percent higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Noise also may affect mental functioning.  One project examined the effects of noise on nearly 3,000 nine and ten-year-olds going to school near three large international airports. The more aircraft noise the children heard, the less well they did on reading and memory tests.  Other research suggests that children at more risk for problems in school are most likely to be distracted by noise.    In older adults, dementia is linked to strokes and noise pollution may contribute if it weakens the cardiovascular system.

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