Noise Isn’t Just Annoying — It Can Kill

airmen, headphones
Photo credit: US Air Force

When considering the long list of pressing public health problems, a number of examples may come to mind — air pollution, drug addiction, contaminated water. Not getting enough exercise. Maybe even too much screen time. But one issue in particular may not seem immediately obvious — a noisy environment.

It’s no secret that being around constant noise can affect our hearing — hearing loss is the number one disability in America, affecting 25 percent of the population. But scientists from the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz have shown that changes in our blood biochemistry from exposure to traffic noise can have life-threatening consequences.

It is thought that exposure to sudden loud noises triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which damages blood vessels over time, leading to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and coronary heart disease.

This hormone release dates back to a time when we weren’t at the top of the food chain — when a startling noise could come from your next-door cave neighbor being eaten — signaling that trouble was on its way and that it was probably time to run for your life.

Even though our rational brain tells us it’s only the irate delivery driver blasting their horn, the innate cave-dweller we all harbor gets us ready to scram by raising our blood pressure. This puts our body under undue pressure, which over time can cause serious damage to our cardiovascular system.

Sound can also harm our health when it disturbs sleep, as sleeping is the time when the human body repairs itself. The World Health Organization estimates that noise pollution causes the loss of one million healthy years of life in western Europe every year, and there are reports documenting the adverse effect of noise pollution on mental health.

So if you’re not living in the quiet, rural countryside, or a soundproof apartment, what can you do? In the US, substantial federal legislation seeks to protect against air and water pollution, but few laws try to regulate noise pollution.  

The first video below is an interview with cardiologist and preventative healthcare expert Dr. Tiffany Sizemore who explains what noise does to heart health and why sleep is so important.

The second video explains how much noise an average city dweller puts up with, how that noise can harm hearing, and what you can do to avoid it.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from sign (Guy Dickinson / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and sound (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay).

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