There's no question the world is getting louder. In the past 25 years, the number of honking cars on the road and roaring planes in the air has ballooned. And consider all the new noises that didn't exist until fairly recently, like surround-sound movie theaters, car alarms, and ring tones. Sleep disturbance and hearing loss are the most obvious tolls of noise pollution: According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 26 million Americans have permanent noise-induced hearing loss. But even more surprising—and more detrimental to your health—are the links between noise and stress.
Sudden loud noises trigger a fight-or-flight response: The heart pumps harder, blood pressure rises, and the body releases stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. It's the inability to predict the sound that brings on the response; that's why the blast from your blender doesn't stress you out the way the sudden revving of a motorcycle does, even if the blender is actually louder.
Our ancestors needed this fight-or-flight boost to escape predators. But modern life doesn't usually include fending off attacks from large fang—baring animals. As a result, people today experience the evolutionary leftovers as extra anxiety and cardiovascular stress. In 2007, researchers in Europe monitored nearly 5,000 people who lived close to six major airports, measuring their blood pressure as
ambient noise rose and fell.
"The higher the noise levels, the higher the risk of hypertension [a major risk factor for heart disease]," explains study leader Lars Jarup, Ph.D. Even when they slept through a landing or takeoff, the subjects' blood pressure rose. In fact, by extrapolating from this study data, other researchers estimate that 3 percent of all fatal heart attacks can be attributed to excess noise. According to Louis Hagler, M.D., a retired San Francisco doctor who has written about the health effects of excess noise, that means about 4,000 people in California alone die prematurely each year due to noise pollution. Talk about the opposite of a "silent killer."
So if clamor is such a big health hazard, why don't we take it more seriously? It turns out that a small but vocal group of activists do, among them Arline Bronzaft, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and a member of the Council on the Environment of New York City. Bronzaft says the best solution would be for the government to begin regulating noise levels—from enacting curfews on airplane takeoffs to replacing asphalt with sound-absorbing road surfaces. But until we start quieting things down, try these tips to help reduce the constant din.
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