Take a second right now, wherever you are, to listen to the sounds around you.
What do you hear? Are the sounds in your environment pleasant, or are they irritating?
Maybe you hear the periodic chirping of birds, or the constant hum of the fridge, or the rattling of construction.
Most of us don’t pay attention to the ambient sounds that surround us. But certain types of sound have a big effect on our physical and mental state.
Researchers define noise as “unwanted sound” — annoying or unpleasant sounds in your environment that you can’t control.¹ Common noise sources include construction, roadways, and air traffic.²
Noise isn’t just annoying: it has real consequences for our health. In fact, researchers describe the increasing loudness of our modern world as an epidemic of noise pollution. Globally, many large cities are noise-polluted enough to cause hearing loss. Let’s examine the major effects of noise on human health, and what we should do about it.
Effects of Noise
The health effects of noise pollution fall into two categories: auditory and non-auditory.³
Exposure to noise pollution can damage your hearing over time. The loudness of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). Most severe hearing loss results from noise that is both loud and ongoing. If you’re exposed to sounds over 85 dB — about the loudness of traffic on a busy road — for more than 8 hours, damage is likely.⁴ In fact, an estimated 10% of people worldwide live in areas noisy enough to put them at risk for hearing damage.⁵
People who work in noisy environments, such as factories, music venues, and military training, are especially at risk of permanently damaging their hearing.⁶
The most surprising thing about noise pollution is that its effects go way beyond hearing damage alone. Even noise levels that aren’t high enough to cause physical hearing damage can negatively affect you.
Living and working in noisy environments is stressful, and this chronic stress can create several types of serious health problems.
Continuous noise over 30 dB can harm the quality of your sleep.⁷ Under these conditions, you’ll likely have trouble falling and staying asleep, and you won’t feel as if you’ve slept very deeply.⁸ Your circadian rhythm will be thrown off rhythm, because you’re frequently waking up during the night due to noise.⁹
Low-quality sleep can have severe consequences. Fatigue, poor performance, and increased risk of workplace accidents are associated with disrupted sleep patterns.¹⁰
2. Cardiovascular Stress
Loud noises are stressful. When you’re exposed to noise pollution, your body undergoes a physical stress response, increasing levels of the hormone cortisol.¹¹
As we’ve previously explored, your heart health is strongly influenced by stress levels. Research suggests that long-term exposure to high noise levels may be related to increased blood pressure¹² and higher risk of cardiovascular disease.¹³ 3. Mental Health Issues
Constant exposure to noise takes a toll on your mental state as well. People exposed to higher levels of noise throughout their daily life tend to report worse overall mental health.¹⁴ And some researchers suspect that noisier ambient environments put children at greater risk of emotional and behavioral problems.¹⁵
Noise also gets on your nerves. Chronic noise exposure can make you feel irritated and frustrated.¹⁶ After all, it’s difficult to relax when you’re surrounded by unwanted sounds.
4. Impaired Learning
A noisy environment isn’t healthy for anyone. But one group is especially at risk: young children. Imagine trying to learn to speak and understand language when you’re constantly being interrupted by loud sounds. It’d be impossible to focus! This is what kids growing up in noise-polluted areas experience.
Some studies suggest that kids raised in chronically noisy environments perform worse on language and reading tests.¹⁷ After all, it’s harder to learn how words sound when you’re surrounded by other, irrelevant sounds. They may also struggle with long-term memory¹⁸ and develop attention disorders.¹⁹
In our modern world, noise is inescapable. Cars, planes, construction, machinery — these sounds have invaded the space both outside and inside our homes. But this noise could be damaging our health, and the health of our children.
So it’s time to “make some noise”, if you will. Check out The Noise Center for noise-prevention advocacy ideas. Or consider getting involved with a nonprofit, like Noise Pollution Clearinghouse or Noise Free America.
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Ma, J., Li, C., Kwan, M., Kou, L., & Chai, Y. (2020). Assessing Personal Noise Exposure and Its Relationship with Mental Health in Beijing Based on Individuals’ Space-Time Behavior. Environment International, 139. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2020.105737
Dreger, S., Meyer, N., Fromme, H., & Bolte, G. (2015). Environmental Noise and Incident Mental Health Problems: A Prospective Cohort Study Among School Children in Germany. Environmental Research, 143, 49–54. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2015.08.003
Dubey & Bhatia (2020)
Evans, G. W., & Lepore, S. J. (1993). Nonauditory Effects of Noise on Children: A Critical Review. Children’s Environments, 10(1), 31–51.
Stansfeld, S. A., & Matheson, M. P. (2003). Noise Pollution: Non-Auditory Effects on Health. British Medical Bulletin, 68(1), 243–257. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldg033
Skrzypek, M., Kowalska, M., Czech, E. M., Niewiadomska, E., & Zejda, J. E. (2017). Impact of Road Traffic Noise on Sleep Disturbances and Attention Disorders Amongst School Children Living in Upper Silesian Industrial Zone, Poland. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 30(3), 511–520. doi:10.13075/ijomeh.1896.00823