· Stefano Morri
Electronics beep and buzz, music blares, traffic zooms. Everyday noise is more than just irritating — it can have a nasty impact on our health. Here’s what you can do to quiet the clamor.
Noise is everywhere in today’s world. And it’s nearly inescapable. We leave the chatter in our open-plan office for a relaxing coffee shop and encounter another cacophony of sounds — milk steaming, coffee grinding, espresso pulls banging against metal surfaces.
There’s construction on the street, the sound of drills and grinders competing with music from car speakers. When we get home, a teenager is playing a video game at full volume while the neighbor’s dog barks. The cell phone beeps, the food processor whines, the dishwasher rumbles. We fall asleep to the squawk of the TV and the hum of the refrigerator. Somehow, we never quite feel rested.
Chronic noise is hard on our peace of mind, and it can be damaging to our overall health. Traffic-related noise alone produces a substantial negative health impact, according to a recent study in western Europe by the World Health Organization. Researchers believe that the stress caused by exposure to traffic noise contributes to heart disease, cognitive impairment, and sleep disturbance, among other conditions.
And traffic noise is only part of the soundscape. With packed restaurants and devices we carry that buzz, beep, and sing, the world is getting louder. Movies today can get as loud as 130 decibels (dB), the equivalent of a jackhammer.
“Social noise has tripled since the early 1980s,” says Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and president of the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise. “Everyone has a smartphone and everyone has earphones. There’s neighborhood noise. Traffic has increased. Noise is everywhere.”
If you’re among the many who struggle to find peace and quiet during these deafening times, take note: There are things you can do to reduce your exposure to noise — and soften the effects of exposure that’s unavoidable.
How Hearing Works
Our ears and the sensitive, complicated components involved in hearing are part of our nervous system. Like the digestive and respiratory systems, your hearing is always on.
“Our auditory system is constantly checking our environment, even when we are sleeping,” explains Basner. “It’s evaluating things at a level below the cortex, deciding whether the sound information is important enough to wake you up.”
If sound does rouse you — even for a microsecond — your heart rate increases, your blood pressure shoots up, and stress hormones release.
The same process occurs when we’re awake. Even when we’re consciously engaged in a task, our ears are still listening for danger.
Consider how you react to a startling noise, says Charlotta Eriksson, PhD, a researcher in environmental epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. “Most of us almost jump out of our chair. Subcortical connections with the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system enable loud noise to increase levels of stress hormones. The hormones then affect many bodily functions.”
But, while we often recognize when noise is annoying, at other times we may not even realize we’re being bombarded.
For us to categorize it as noise, sound has to have a negative connotation. Most of us never realize that attempts to relax by watching loud TV or listening to raucous rock-and-roll actually prevent us from doing that very thing.
It’s true that some of us are more sensitive to sound — and more stressed by it. Research shows that introverts are more likely to suffer the psychological effects of noise than extroverts.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes a study where introverts and extroverts worked on math problems while exposed to varying levels of noise.
“The introverts did best when the background noise was softer, and the extroverts, when the background noise was louder,” she explains.
On the other hand, some of us are so used to being around noise and sound that we crave it. Think of the stereotype of the city dweller who panics in the countryside.
“Sound waves are a stimulant,” says George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. “My thesis is that, living day in and day out with that extra shot of stimulation, people have gotten physiologically addicted to it.”
“The changes are physiological,” agrees Robyn Gershon, MHS, DrPH, professor of health policy at the University of California,
San Francisco. “They are out of our control. You may be unaware that your blood pressure and your heart rate are going up, but it’s still happening.”
Studies show that long-term exposure to environmental noise impairs cardiovascular function, the ability to learn, and immunity. Noise has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, as well as anxiety, reduced attention span, and other mental-health issues.
A 2012 Yale University study found that patients in an intensive-care unit who were exposed to sounds in excess of 83 dB suffered lowered immune function and even delirium from sleep deprivation.
Another study that examined 3.6 million people near Heathrow Airport, which is outside London, found that those who lived with the highest levels of aircraft noise had a 10 to 20 percent higher risk of hospital admissions, as well as death from stroke, heart disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Even more subtle forms of “nuisance noise” can be health-depleting, leading to symptoms such as increased stress. (Researchers distinguish nuisance noise from ear-damaging noise; see “Noise and Hearing Loss,” below.)
Cubicle workers say that hearing other employees around them is one of their biggest complaints. Studies show a 4 to 41 percent decline in performance on cognitively demanding tasks, such as proofreading, when they’re done in noisy office settings.
This leads to longer, less-productive, more-exhausting hours to complete the same work.
Short of walking around with a sound meter, how can you tell whether an environment is dangerously loud? Easy, says Gershon: “If you have to shout while speaking to someone within arm’s distance, the noise around you may be doing damage.”
When you realize that your environment is potentially harmful, you can take these steps to modify your surroundings. Here are some strategies.
Evaluate Your Noise Diet
Prochnik suggests closing your eyes for a few minutes wherever you spend a lot of time, and listening for the “soundtrack” of the space. Since we get desensitized to everyday noise, you’ll probably be surprised at what you hear. “Look at noise as a daily dietary problem,” he suggests. “Ask yourself, ‘What is my daily sonic intake?’ Right now, society is taking in what equates to a lot of fatty, sugary, unhealthy noises.” If you don’t like what you hear on your soundtrack, make a plan to improve your noise diet.
Cover Your Ears
The easiest fix for noise is earplugs. Use them with caution in public spaces, though, because blocking too much sound puts you at risk for accidents. The earplugs you buy at the drugstore for a dollar are good for riding subways or watching fireworks, but they may make a concert sound too muted. Pricier noise-canceling earplugs or headsets will reduce the amount of background sound that reaches your ears while still allowing you to hear what’s going on around you. Musician earplugs are also a good choice. Made of clear, malleable plastic and costing $20 to $100 per pair, they block up to 25 dB across all frequencies.
Quiet Your Environment
Much of the ambient noise we’re exposed to is in the home. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reduce it. Turn off computers when they’re not in use, turn down fans, keep radios and TV at a reasonable volume, and, when possible, trade deafening small appliances (like hair dryers and blenders) for quieter alternatives.
Keep smart-phones and gadgets out of your sleeping quarters. Finally, while there is little you can do to quell the noise coming from an old refrigerator or air conditioner, when it’s time to replace them, consider upgrading to less noisy models.
When possible, make sure your bedroom is on the quietest side of the house, far from the television and kitchen. If outside noise — street sounds, aircraft, raucous neighbors — drifts in, invest in carpeting or drapes to deaden or block out sound. If aircraft noise is severe, see if you qualify for a noise-abatement program: The Federal Aviation Administration provides grants for sound insulation in homes near airports that are exposed to aircraft noise above 65 dB.
If the movie you’re seeing feels too loud, get up and move to the back of the theater, which can cut sound levels by 10 to 15 dB, according to John Bedolla, MD, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Still too loud? Ask the theater operator to turn down the sound.
Be just as vigilant with your personal entertainment. Your iPod can get as loud as 100 to 115 dB. The noise coming out of a Jet Ski can top the 115 dB mark. Use proper sound protection so your fun doesn’t catch up with you — and your ears — in a few years’ time.
Find Your Still, Silent Place
While there are benefits to taking longer meditation breaks and vacations that focus on silence and renewal, as far as your health is concerned, experts suggest that finding daily doses of silence is your best bet.
“Vacations may help to lower your stress levels temporarily,” says Eriksson, “but if you live in a noisy area 51 weeks of the year and go somewhere silent for one week, I think the effect is negligible. Better to adapt your everyday life.”
One thing that doesn’t work for reducing stress from noise exposure, say experts, is listening to an iPod or white-noise machine. These only mask nuisance noise, and they often end up causing more damage. You have to turn up the volume so much to drown out a coworker’s telephone conversation that you end up hurting your ears.
A more helpful remedy is to seek out silence throughout the day — and enjoy silent-as-possible nights. Here are some ideas for how to keep your noise-related stress in check:
- Know where the quiet spots are in your workplace, even if they’re supply closets or bathrooms, and take “noise breaks” there. If there are no such spaces, wear earplugs for short periods to block out sounds completely.
- If you work from home and it’s noisy there, find libraries, religious sanctuaries, and quiet cafés that don’t have music playing in the background, and visit them regularly. Just the simple act of removing yourself from sound can lower your heart rate and reduce blood pressure.
- Take small, frequent breaks rather than saving it all up for an hourlong meditation at the end of the day. Spending 10 hours in an office in an excited state is hard on the body, but taking routine breaks helps by bringing down your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress-hormone levels on a regular basis. “If you wait until the end of the day, your stress levels will be so high it may take quite a bit of time to bring them down,” Gershon says. “This could impact your ability to relax and enjoy a night of quality, restorative sleep.”
- Do all you can to ensure that your sleep environment is soundless enough to allow for uninterrupted sleep. These silent hours allow the body to recover from the onslaught of stimulation in an average day.
Illustration by Stefano Morri