The roar of traffic, aircraft and even ringing telephones are linked to negative health effects. Now scientists are starting to unravel what all this noise is doing to our bodies.
In 2011, Germany’s Frankfurt Airport – the country’s busiest – unveiled its fourth runway. The addition sparked major protests, with demonstrators returning to the airport every Monday for years. “It’s destroying my life,” one protester told Reuters a year later. “Every time I go into my garden, all I can hear and see are planes right above.”
The new runway also channelled dozens of aircraft directly over the house of Thomas Münzel, a cardiologist at the University Medical Center of Mainz. “I have lived close to the German Autobahn and close to inner city train tracks,” he says. “Aircraft noise is the most annoying by far.” Münzel had read a 2009 World Health Organization (WHO) report linking noise to heart problems, but evidence at the time was thin. Driven in part by concern for his own health, in 2011 he shifted the focus of his research to learn more.
Exposure to loud noise has long been linked with hearing loss. But the ruckus of planes and cars takes a toll beyond the ears. Traffic noise has been flagged as a major physiological stressor, second to air pollution and on roughly equal footing with exposure to second-hand smoke and radon.
In the last decade, a growing body of research has linked noise from aircraft and road traffic to a heightened risk for a number of cardiovascular ailments. And scientists are also beginning to pinpoint the mechanisms at play.
Estimates suggest that roughly a third of people in Europe and the US are regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of noise, typically defined as starting around 70 to 80 decibels. For comparison, normal conversation is typically about 60 dB, cars and trucks range around 70 to 90 dB and sirens and airplanes can reach 120 dB or more.
Numerous studies link chronic exposure to such environmental noise to an increased risk of heart-related troubles. People living near the Frankfurt Airport, for example, have as much as a 7% higher risk of stroke than those living in similar but quieter neighbourhoods, according to a 2018 study that investigated health data of more than one million people. An analysis of nearly 25,000 cardiovascular deaths between 2000 and 2015 among people living near Switzerland’s Zurich Airport saw significant increases in night time mortality after airplane flyovers, especially among women, a team reported recently in the European Heart Journal.
As researchers probe the physiology underlying noise’s cardiovascular consequences, they are zeroing in on a culprit: dramatic changes to the endothelium, the inner lining of arteries and blood vessels. This lining can go from a healthy state to one that’s “activated”, and inflamed, with potentially serious ramifications.
The path from noise to blood vessels goes something like this: when sound reaches the brain, it activates two important regions – the auditory cortex, which interprets noise, and the amygdala, which manages emotional responses to it. As noise gets louder, and especially during sleep, the amygdala activates the body’s flight-or-fight response – even if the person isn’t aware of it.
Once initiated, this stress response releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into the body. Some arteries constrict, others dilate, blood pressure rises, digestion slows while sugars and fats flood the bloodstream for quick use by the muscles.
The cascading stress response also prompts the creation of harmful molecules that cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the lining of blood vessels. This dysfunctional endothelium meddles with blood flow and affects numerous other processes that, when impaired, contribute to a range of cardiovascular illnesses, including high blood pressure, plaque build-up in the arteries, obesity and diabetes.
Studies on people and mice show that the endothelium doesn’t work as well after just a few days of night time airplane noise exposure, suggesting that loud noise isn’t a concern only for people already at risk for heart and metabolic problems. Healthy adults subjected to train recordings as they slumbered had impaired blood vessel function almost immediately, according to a 2019 study by Münzel and his colleagues.
“We were surprised that young people, after hearing these sounds for just one night, had endothelial dysfunction,” says Münzel, who also co-authored a review of noise and cardiovascular health. “We always thought this was something that takes years to develop.”
While the data continues to accumulate, untangling cause and effect can be tricky. It’s not easy to conduct long-term sleep experiments or to distinguish between the effects of daytime and night time noise, or effects of the noise itself versus the combined effects of noise and air pollution (which often go hand-in-hand).
The consequences of environmental noise are also tough to parse due to the subjective nature of sound, says Andreas Xyrichis, a health services scientist at King’s College in London. Xyrichis studies hospital intensive care units, where ringing telephones and clattering food dishes can be comforting or counteractive to recovery, depending on the patient. “We are really trying to make this distinction between decibel levels and perception of noise,” he says.
But despite the remaining questions, there is a growing recognition of the connections between noise pollution and reduced physical health.