Too much noise is bad for your health

It’s noisy out there—with alarms rousing and TVs blaring, cars honking and SEPTA trains roaring, dogs barking and jackhammers destroying, motorcycles gunning and airplanes soaring, sirens sounding and strangers shouting, it can all be astounding.

Give your ears a break. Too much noise is bad for your health.

The ears do not sleep. Like watchmen (or watchwomen), they are on high alert, 24/7, eavesdropping on surroundings, searching for any sound signaling danger. One of their tormentors is noise, which can panic the body like stress.

Mathias Basner, an assistant professor of sleep and chronobiology in psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, says the easiest way to define noise is “unwanted sounds.”

“Obviously there is a loudness component,” he says. “Something has to have a certain noise level to function as noise.”

Noise can be subjective, too; fans seated in the second row at a rock concert may not mind the band’s deafening tunes, but the neighbors may be none too pleased.

“The physical sound level is much lower, but that may be noise for [the neighbors] because it’s unwanted sound at that point,” Basner says. “So, there’s a physical component on one hand and the psychological component on the other.”

Noise, Basner says, is pervasive in everyday life and can influence both auditory and non-auditory health.

The hazards of occupational noise—the leading cause of hearing loss in America and the most common occupational disease in the United States—have been thoroughly studied.

Of increasing interest to medical researchers is the impact of social noise, such as noise heard while wearing headphones or sitting in bars, and environmental noise from air, road, and railway traffic. Basner says industrial noise exposure in industrialized countries has dipped slightly over the last 30 years, but social noise exposure has tripled.

An international review team consisting of experts on noise and public health congregated recently to examine the latest findings on noise exposure and overall wellbeing.

The review team, led by Basner, reported that occupational, environmental, and social noise exposure poses a serious threat to public health—and not strictly in terms of hearing. Noise has been associated with sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment in  children, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Their research was published in The Lancet.

Basner, secretary of the International Commission of the Biological Effects of Noise, says noise can function as an unspecific stressor on the body. Prolonged periods of unwanted noise can cause the body to release stress hormones like adrenaline, and can negatively affect blood hormones like cholesterol.

“That, in the long run, may lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease,” Basner says. He says epidemiological studies suggest that the risk for cardiovascular disease rises 5 to 15 percent at every 10-decibel increase.

The non-auditory health effects of noise is news to a large portion of the public. Basner says one of the main reasons he wanted to bring the review team together was to increase awareness amongst both the medical and general populations. He says prevention and raising awareness about the dangers of noise in general is paramount, as there are no treatments for curing hearing loss.

“Once these cells are dead, they don’t regenerate,” he says. “So we have to try to prevent them from dying in the first place.”

Basner and colleagues would like their review to make audiences more cognizant about the negative health consequences of noise, and foster educational campaigns encouraging noise-avoiding and noise-reducing behaviors.

“Efforts to reduce noise exposure will eventually be rewarded by lower amounts of annoyance, improved learning environments for children, improved sleep, lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, and, in the case of noise exposure in hospitals, improved patient outcomes and shorter hospital stays,” the researchers write.