Noise felt curiously absent in the outside world during the pandemic. Businesses shuttered, traffic thinned, cars stayed in garages.
Yet most of us were still exposed to plenty of ambient noise at home. A teenager plays a video game at full volume while the neighbor’s dog barks. The cellphone beeps, the food processor whines, the dishwasher rumbles. We fall asleep to the hum of the refrigerator. We may not have noticed these sounds before, but as the world quieted, some of us started to hear them. And feel them.
Thanks to a number of factors, chronic noise exposure is once again on the rise. It’s 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.
And traffic noise is only part of the soundscape. With packed restaurants and devices we carry that vibrate, beep, and ring, the world is getting louder.
“Social noise has tripled since the early 1980s,” says Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc, 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 unavoidable exposure.
How Hearing Works
Our ears, as well as the sensitive, complicated components involved in hearing, are all 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 a 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.”
Yet while we often recognize an annoying noise, we may not even realize we’re being bombarded by everyday sounds.
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 than extroverts to suffer the psychological effects of noise.
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 people have gotten physiologically addicted to living day in and day out with that extra shot of stimulation.”
“The changes are physiological,” agrees Robyn Gershon, a clinical epidemiology professor at New York University. “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 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 significantly 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.)
As we return to the office, it’s worth noting that the largest complaint of cubicle workers is hearing other employees around them. 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 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.
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 become 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?’ Modern society is taking in what equates to a lot of sugary, unhealthy noises.”
If you don’t like what you hear on your soundtrack, make a plan to improve your noise diet.
Safeguard Your Ears
The easiest form of protection from noise is earplugs. Use with caution in public, though; your hearing protects you from accidents.
Drugstore earplugs are good for riding subways or watching fireworks, but they may make a concert sound too muted. Pricier noise-canceling earplugs or headphones 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. Most cost less than $50 and 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 TVs at a reasonable volume, and, when possible, trade deafening small appliances (like hair dryers and blenders) for quieter alternatives.
Keep smartphones 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 your home, 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, assistant professor at Dell Medical School. Still too loud? Ask the theater operator to turn down the sound.
Be just as vigilant with your personal entertainment. Headphones can get as loud as 96 to 110 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 turning up the volume on your headphones 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 as-silent-as-possible nights.”
A more helpful remedy is to seek out silence throughout the day — and enjoy as-silent-as-possible nights. Consider these 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
Noise and Hearing Loss
Exposure to chronic noise is a major culprit in hearing loss, so much so that sound is regulated in workplaces. The occupational noise standard created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) says an employee can safely spend up to eight hours exposed to 85 dB, the sonic equivalent to being stuck in average traffic.
But for every three additional decibels, the length of safe exposure time is cut in half, according to NIOSH. Once decibel levels get over 85, there’s a risk of long-term hearing loss.
Statistics would suggest plenty of us spend time in environments over 85 dB. One in four people are projected to have some degree of hearing loss by 2050, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. Nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.
In 2014, the National Health Interview Survey found that one in five adults had difficulty following a conversation amid background noise, while about one in 10 had tinnitus, with chronic ringing in the ears.
While a little hearing loss might not seem like a big deal, the effects of a deficit are significant. Studies show that older adults with hearing loss suffer cognitive decline and shrinkage in brain tissue, while those with mild hearing loss are three times more likely to take a fall than those with normal hearing. Researchers suggest this may be because hearing loss reduces our awareness of our immediate environments, making a tumble more likely.
Loud and Louder
From quiet to deafening, here are average decibel levels for everyday sounds in the world around us:
|Rustling leaves||20 dB|
|Whisper in a library||30 dB|
|Quiet room||40 dB|
|Open-floor-plan office||60 dB|
|Vacuum cleaner||70 dB|
|Coffee shop||70 dB|
|City street||70 dB|
|Movie theater||70-104 dB|
|School cafeteria||75-80 dB|
|Kitchen blender||90 dB|
|Headphones on maximum||96 to 100 dB|
|Power hand drill||100 dB|
|Rock-and-roll concert||110 dB|
|Jet ski||115 db|
|Ambulance siren||120 dB|
|Jet airplane taking off||140 dB|
This article has been updated. It was originally published online on October 23, 2014.