I've got an important message: noise pollution can ruin your health over time.
Don't believe me?
Well, this blog post looks at the science of noise pollution and what it does to your health.
But let's take a step back:
Remember that in the previous blog post I wrote, I gave a definition of sound and noise and taught you the basics of how to understand them.
In this blog post, I'll look at some devastating potential consequences of noise, such as stress responses, blood sugar dysregulation, higher heart rates and increases in heart and blood vessel disease risk, inflammation, impaired brain function, and more.
I've divided this blog post into several sections - these sections are listed in the table of contents below:
You can read these sections independently, although, for the best understanding, read them consecutively.
Ready to learn what noise does to your health? Start reading more below:
Many people only have a very basic understanding of sound and noise. In the previous blog post, I defined noise as:
[I]f a sound either 1) reaches a certain loudness threshold; or 2) is disliked by you, that sound becomes noise.
Let's also recap what exactly sound is. Wikipedia defines sound as such:
"In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid."
Your ears pick up that sound, and next, your brain processes the vibrations as sound. If the sound is unpleasant or merely very loud then it becomes noise.
One very important tactic to control your noise exposure is to measure it. How? The decibel scale:
What most people don't know sound levels exist on an extreme continuum. Such sound levels - indistinct or loud - are expressed on a decibel (dB) scale.
The dB scale is logarithmic. In the case of the dB scale logarithmic means that a 10-fold increase on the scale leads to a 10-fold increase in loudness.
Maybe that dB scale is hard to imagine so let's begin with an example. Here's a list of different loudness levels according to my latest blog post where I define noise pollution:
10dB - Your breathing, the Grand Canyon at night, or the sound of dropping a pin
20dB - Leaves in the forest, whispering of a single person, a rural area with snow
30dB - A common quiet rural area sound level, or running computer.
40dB - Multiple people whispering in a classroom, library sound, birds singing
50dB - Regular conversations, very light traffic, background music, dishwasher
60dB - Air conditioner, bypassing car at 50 miles per hour, restaurant conversation
Now, at 65dB noise can already become damaging (if you're exposed for a long time):
70dB - Showering, music at regular-loudness, bypassing trucks, vacuum cleaner
80dB - Drilling machine, your morning alarm clock, a bypassing freight train
90dB - Low-flying Boeing 737, mp3 player, lawnmower
100dB - Subway car, food processor, airplane take-off, motorcycle
110dB - A rock concert, jackhammer, or an auto horn at a 3-yard distance
120dB - Classroom filled with screaming children, thunder impact
130dB - Football stadium noise peak
At this point, noise starts to generate ear-pain:
140dB - Jet engine take-off, firecrackers
150dB - Rock concert peak near speakers, fighter jet take-off
160dB - Weapons firing (such as a shotgun),
180dB - Rocket launch
194dB - Official maximum sound level - at this point, a sound is converted into "shockwaves".
That list should give you a great basic understanding of different sound levels.
Let's make some calculations to make sure you understand:
Let's say I compare 2 different sound levels. One level is the sound of a computer running (30dB) while the other one is a restaurant conversation (60dB).
Notice that therés a 30dB difference between those two numbers. At first sight, many people would think that the restaurant conversation is 2 times as loud as the sound of the computer. However, a 30dB difference entails a difference of 10*10*10 or 1,000-fold difference.
In other words, the average restaurant conversation is thus 1,000-fold as loud as the sound of a computer running in the background.
The implication of that statement? Let's find out:
If you've closely looked at the dB chart I posted above, you've noticed that in nature, 30-40dB levels are very normal.
In most modern locations, those 30-40dB levels are no longer present. In fact, during the daytime, modern cities have dB exposure levels of 60-90dB.
Let's take the difference between 40dB and 80dB, for instance. Again, that difference in loudness isn't a 2-fold difference but is 10*10*10*10 (or 10^4) = a 10,000-fold difference.
There's tons of noise all around you in a modern city. Of course, you're not powerless by any means - I'll explain why in the third and last installment of this series.
Furthermore, even at night, many cities have sound levels of 50-70dB. For high-quality sleep, you'll want those numbers to be 35dB at the maximum. Fortunately, walls and windows do reduce the sound level dramatically.
But still, a third of people living in the European Union currently experience excess sound (and thus noise) at nighttime. In Asian countries, when high population densities are present, the problem is even worse.
Daytime noise exposure, additionally, can also be a problem. If you're working in an office, for instance, 60-80dB levels can exist on a daily basis. Working in such an environment for 40 hours a week will have health consequences as it physically drains you 24-7.
Let's explore some of the consequences of noise pollution now - the goal of this blog post in the next section. I'm glad you now understand that noise is present much more in society from the summary of my first blog post. So let's move on:
Another overflying airplane again. 80dB of nightly irritation.
Let's find out what exactly occurs in your body when you're exposed to noise.
First of all, during the nighttime, being exposed to noise increases your stress hormone levels.[35; 36; 37; 38; 39; 40; 41; 42; 168; 260]
"Cortisol" and "adrenaline" are two commonly known stress hormones. High levels of noise can increase these stress hormones for several hours. If you're really sensitive to noise, a mere 40dB sound can already increase cortisol levels in your body.
That 40dB sound roughly equals whispering people, or birds singing.
For most people who are less sensitive, I think the threshold lies somewhere between 50 and 70dB during the day.
But there's more to noise:
Noise levels that many would not consider that bad, such as 60db - the sound level of bypassing cars or a restaurant - can already change your (stress) hormone levels:
Even during the daytime, aircraft sound or road traffic will increase your cortisol levels.[32; 33; 34]
If you're exposed to more than 60dB due to aircraft noise, for instance, your overall cortisol levels will be 33% higher than people who are exposed to less than 50dB on a 24-hour basis.
The same is true if you're working in an industry with 80dB+ noise levels.
Let's consider the example of someone working in a noisy industry:
If cortisol is measured in the morning time, your cortisol levels will be roughly similar on a working day and an off day. If your cortisol levels are taken in the evening, however, after getting exposed to that loud 80dB noise long enough, your cortisol levels will be much higher than during your day off.
No, sadly enough:
Every one-dB levels increase of the sound level raises your heart rate by 0,29 beats per minute (when studying a range between 50dB and 90dB noise levels)
A 10dB increase in background noise will thus increase your heart rate by 3 beats per minute. A 30dB increase in environmental sound - which is the difference between rural areas and inner cities, will thus increase your heart beats per minute by 10.
It takes just one minute for your heart rate to go up after an increase in sound exposure. Your heart thus works overtime with more noise exposure.
Next, noise has big effects on your sleep quality:
While I'll treat the topic of sleep in more detail in the next section, let's consider what happens when you're woken by sound during the night:[26; 27; 28; 29; 30; 31; 32]
At 32dB, fortunately, you're not awoken by any environmental noise.
At higher sound levels, however, you will be having negative sleep quality effects. A person who whispers at night in your room - at 40dB - is thus already loud enough to wake you up.
Noise during sleep affects many people. In the European Union, almost 600,000 people are experiencing negative effects of more than 55dB of noise during the night.
That 55dB sound level equals hearing a dishwasher or light traffic from a small distance. In other words, 600,000 people have to sleep at night while hearing a sound that's as loud as cars passing by.
One big problem of becoming awake during the night due to noise is that you'll not always remember those moments. Noise can easily put you out of sleep for 15-45 seconds. When morning time arrives, you'll simply think that you've slept through the night - unless the noise was really loud and obvious.
In your body, however, real negative changes occur when you're woken up during the night.
There's more to noise though:
Noise causes what is called "oxidative stress".[163; 271; 272]
Oxidative stress basically entails the creation of "Reactive Oxygen Species" (ROS) in your body. Some ROS is necessary for optimal health, but ROS levels that are too high can be damaging to your health.
(Oxidative stress means that a specific chemical reaction with oxygen increases in your cells.)
Noise can give you ROS levels that are too high because the ROS levels have not been created in a really natural way - such as temporary stress due to exercise. That oxidative stress, in turn, causes noise-induced hearing loss - a topic I'll come back to later.
Next, noise influences your brain at several levels...
Your brain has an "auditory system". That auditory system is connected to other brain areas.[252; 253; 254; 256; 257; 258; 259; 260]
Many brain areas actually participate in your hearing.
I'd like to talk about one very important area called the "amygdala". I've mentioned this brain area before in my blog post about stress.
That amygdala is an alarm bell in your brain. Noise in your environment can trigger that amygdala. As a result, your body releases stress hormones and activates your nervous system.
I've often talked about human beings evolving in Africa roughly 250,000 years ago. Our lifestyle back then was very different than how you're living in modern society.
Back then, your hearing system was naturally attuned to filtering out sounds that could affect your survival.[36; 37; 262; 263]
Traditional societies: never experiencing
consistent 50>dB levels...
When you hear a snake nearby, even though its loudness only approximates 40dB, that sound triggers a "fight, flight or freeze" response in your body. Let's consider these three different fight, flight, or freeze options:
From an evolutionary perspective, your body is naturally attuned to environmental sounds so that can accomplish its very survival.
In modern society, however, sounds are almost everywhere - and have become noise.
When there's lots of sound present, your brain has to process and filter all those sounds.
Sounds which are really loud, at a 90dB rating, for example, are also inherently stressful. Even the sound of a loud lawnmower or lots of traffic--although many people do not associate that sound with stress--will automatically cause a small stress reaction in your body.
Noise can thus put your body in a "fight, flight, or freeze" response, by causing your amygdala to ring the alarm bells. That response occurs spontaneously and there's little you can do to prevent it, even though that stress is detrimental to your health in the long-run.
Are there examples of that response automatically being triggered?
The sound of a dental drill, for instance, will automatically trigger a small stress response in many people. The same is true for hearing very hard laughter in the middle of the night, or the breaking of a window.
Almost everyone automatically responds to these sounds because we've been conditioned to interpret them as a form of danger. Loud noises are always interpreted as a form of danger by the brain.
But there's more to our human hearing:
Human ears are not only made to signal danger but also to find our prey.
The fact that the human ear has such a wide ability to pick up different sounds between 0dB and 140dB - which is an obscene 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) fold difference - demonstrates that we're meant to be attuned to many types of sounds, and their loudness.
Your ears are thus adjusted to hearing both a fish swimming that's almost unnoticed underwater and the roaring of a lion.
One reason your ears are attuned to so many different sounds is because the different parts of the ear can magnify the intensity of sounds. The ear - fortunately for our modern society - also contains mechanisms to tone down sound again.
And if you ask: "why do we have two ears, then, and not one?", I will answer: because with just one ear, it's harder to pinpoint the location of any sound...
Just as two eyes give you a three-dimensional perspective qua vision, your ears do the same for hearing.
(Advanced explanation: the paragraphs listed above on how sound works in the brain are oversimplified. A few other brain areas involved in sound are:[264; 265; 266; 267; 268; 269; 270]
- the cochlear nucleus in the brainstem, which receives the first sound input from the inner ear, and is the gateway to the rest of the brain's "audio system"
- the olivary body and trapezoid bodies, which help with the localization of sounds and integrate sounds that originate from both ears into a whole.
- the inferior colliculi, interestingly enough, may filter out sounds that you make yourself from conscious awareness, such as from eating your food or breathing. These parts are connected to both the brainstem and auditory cortex.
- the medial geniculate nucleus acts as a relay station between the auditory cortex and some of the aforementioned lower brain areas associated with sound. This area can modulate fear-producing sounds in the amygdala.
- the hippocampus stores memories about past sounds that you've encountered. The hippocampus also stores successful dealings with "stressful noise" you might have had in the past. For example, the hippocampus can store memories on how you deal with your neighbors' noise last year. Your brain can then access that memory to solve problems in the present moment.
- the primary auditory cortex, which is the cortical area associated with sound, is responsible for dealing with more abstract types of sound, such as music.
I think the last area is inhibited in my brain because friends have told me I've got no feeling for rhythm when I dance. You can't have it all in life...)
It's important to realize the situational difference between "sound" and "noise".[162; 168]
If you like rock music and you're going to a concert, a 70dB sound might not be interpreted as noise per se. If you need to concentrate on a cognitively demanding task, however, a 70dB sound emerging from a bypassing train will be interpreted as noise.
Of course, at a certain point, all sound becomes noise. Even though you might like the sound of a shogun firing at 140dB, that sound will always act as noise for your body, because your nervous system and brain are simply directly impaired by that stimulus.
Naturally, the setting of sound also matters.
If you hear the previous rock concert music while you're trying to focus, the results might not be that optimal. And if you're presented a barely audible classical music piece at 40dB while thinking you're going to a rock concert, you won't be happy either.
Again, it's just not only decibels matter but also the nature of the sound and the situation you're in when you're exposed.
Noise inhibits your ability to be present with any current activity.
Different types of sounds have different influences in different situations, even though they might be just as loud.[252; 283; 284]
If you hear a baby crying at 40dB, for example, that specific sound trigger can have much more of an impact on your brain than hearing a far away lawnmower at 60dB.
Language is another category of sound that has a large impact on your brain. Hearing your name at 30dB in a crowd can immediately trigger your brain. Hearing spoken language at 50dB can also be more annoying when you're trying to focus, compared to hearing traffic at 70dB.
Different categories of sound thus have different influences.
One reason for this influence is the role of the "amygdala" brain area which I've talked about earlier. More unpredictable noises are more damaging than continuous noise exposure, and trigger your amygdala much easier.
Hearing your name in a crowd will also activate your body...
The bottom line of this section is that noise causes stress in your body by increasing stress hormone levels, activating the amygdala in your brain (the brain's alarm bell), and by creating oxidative stress which can lead to cell damage.
(noise is like an alarm clock that goes off in your brain,
creating activation in your hormonal and nervous system).
Let's now look at the full health-effects of noise pollution.
One last section of gloom and doom before things get better. Hold tight...
In this section, I'll tell you why noise has far greater consequences than just creating hearing losses.
Many people assume that losing their hearing ability is the only negative consequence of noise. Nothing could be further from the truth: noise affects many areas of your health.
I'll tell you about these areas one by one...
Let's consider a complete list of all the effects that noise pollution has on your body. Noise pollution:
I'm happy that depressing list of problems caused by noise is finally finished.
Before we look at solutions, however, let's take a look at individual differences in dealing with noise. Not everyone is affected by noise in the same way.
Some groups are influenced by noise to a far greater extent than others. Let's consider the first group:
Firstly, children are the most susceptible to noise.[98; 99; 100; 107; 108; 109; 124; 171]
That problem doesn't just exist after children are born:
Hearing defects are already diagnosed in fetuses today - hence before children are even born. How? Noise pollution such as road traffic penetrates the mother's belly, thereby affecting the fetus.
The results of excessive noise during pregnancy are birth defects, hearing loss, growth problems, and children being born (too) early.
The problems for children don't stop there:
After birth, excessive noise can cause helplessness, cognitive problems such as an inability to concentrate, impaired learning ability, nervousness, and increased blood pressure.
For every 10dB increase of average (average daily) sound exposure before the age of 7, behavioral problems increase with 7%. More noise additionally makes children's "academic performance" go down, even after the age of 7.
Overall, you'll want your (not yet born) child to steer clear from noisy areas.
Shift workers are the second category of people who are harmed more by noise than the general public.[110; 111; 112; 124]
I've you've been following my blog for a while, you know by now that shift work is no bueno for your overall health.
Shift work increases your chances for all kinds of diseases, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disease.
And because shift workers often sleep during the day their sleep quality is even more disturbed by noise compared to people who sleep at night.
During the day almost everyone goes about their daily activities - which are often accompanied by at least some noise generation. At daytime, there's thus more traffic, more machinery being operated, and more "social" noise.
Construction crews are often prohibited from working during the night due to the noise being generated. People working shifts are directly affected by construction noise if they try to sleep during the day.
But there's more: you're also more susceptible to noise if you sleep during the day in the first place. For some reason, the same dB level of noise affects you more during the day than during nighttime.
(I think the reason is that shift-work is inherently stressful, incapacitating your body's defense against new stresses)
Noise is thus another nail in the coffin of shift work...
There is none...
If you're working night shifts, make a plan to quit them as quickly as possible. Also make sure, moreover, to lower your noise levels as much as possible during your sleep periods if you're working shifts anyway.
(Fortunately, the next section will give you several strategies to lower noise levels)
Thirdly, people become more affected by noise with age.[124; 127; 291; 292; 293]
Elderly seem to be especially annoyed by very low tones of noise, such as bass.
The more people are aware of the negative effects of noise - which happens to occur once you grow up - the more people are annoyed by noise as well.
At very old ages, however, annoyance levels due to noise go down again - probably due to hearing loss. That means that there are at least some upsides to aging...
Fourthly, the negative effects of noise also increase in some specific psychiatric mental disorders.[124; 157; 159; 160; 179; 180; 181; 182; 183; 294]
Let's consider two examples, such as Schizophrenia and Autism...
In general, persons diagnosed with Schizophrenia have trouble with motivation, processing information, controlling their emotions, and may lose contact with external reality due to (excessive) noise.
To be more precise, people with Schizophrenia have trouble diverting attention away from noises. Noises may also be processed in a different way if you have Schizophrenia.
It's not a coincidence that Schizophrenia levels are double in urban environments compared to rural areas. The more "noise stress" there is in your location, the worse the symptoms of Schizophrenia become.
Moreover, in autism or Asperger's syndrome - which are both developmental disorders - noise makes it more difficult to understand speech. People with these disorders are also more commonly hypersensitive to sound. The more different types of noise are present, the harder focusing becomes because useful sounds get harder to filter out.
(As a funny side note, some people are annoyed with specific types of sounds very quickly, such as slurping, the sound of eating or sniffing. Although these annoyances are not an official psychiatric disorder, they may indicate a degree of compulsiveness.)
I had to integrate some humor into this blog post...
Fifthly, there are individual differences in how well people tolerate noise.[124; 145; 168; 172; 173; 174; 294; 295; 296]
Let's say you're really sensitive to noise.
In that case, you're more attentive of noises in your environment, you'll discriminate noise more from other types of sound, accept noise something that's outside your control and therefore see it as more threatening, and you'll have problems adapting to noise in the first place.
The more "neurotic" you are, moreover, the more you'll actually be affected by stress - such as noise.
There's also a "gender gap" with noise pollution:
Men, for example, are less able to deal with traffic noise than women. In other areas, such as vigilance or brain processing speed, women are more affected by noise than men.
What's interesting is that people do indeed get used to noise to a small extent over time.[81; 118] In sleep labs, for example, where participants might be subjected to loud noise several nights in a row, have significantly worse sleep during the first night compared to later nights.
However, that effect of "getting used" to noise might also be due to participants getting used to sleeping in another environment, compared to getting used to the noise...
The human adaptability to noise might thus be overstated.
What's important to understand (and remember) is that no-one will ever fully adapt to noise. In other words, you might get partially used to 80dB noise levels, but that noise will still always have negative consequences for your health.
Yes, that's true even if you claim to be "not sensitive" to noise.
So what are the implications of the previous sections up until now?
Noise has become negative byproduct that's intrinsically intertwined with how our modern society is structured.
Don't be bogged down though: in the next installment of this series, you'll learn about what you can do about noise.
Genetics, on the one hand, does influence how well you're able to deal with noise. Implementing a few practical solutions, however, will have a greater influence on your annoyance levels than your genetics.
The bigger picture?
24-7 or even incidental noise is one of those things that is slowly killing you even without you knowing it...
Just like people weren't aware of the negative health effects of drinking a few cans of sugar-rich soda per day, or sitting on the couch 24-7, many are unaware of noise as well.
Noise is not just a nuisance! Instead, noise is a real force of sound that negatively affects your health.
Stay tuned because I'll give you lots of strategies to work with in the next installment of this series!
Hopefully, you're convinced that noise is a problem now! Higher heart rate, insomnia, poorer blood sugar management, and many other consequences are a result of noise pollution. Take charge!
This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com.
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