Quiet Please – The Noise-Health Connection

37543664 - portrait of woman standing still in the middle of a street with cars passing by fast, screaming stressed and frustrated

As I write these words I’m sitting in my sunlit kitchen with a freshly brewed cup of warm tea, my seven-week-old son is sleeping in his bassinet… and my next door neighbor is intermittently blasting a low pitched rumble and a high pitched buzz with some kind of mechanized contraption used for cutting timber.

 

My neighbor is an owner-builder, which in Australia means he has a special license that allows him to carry out his own construction work. He’s been building his house for the last three and a half years – a time frame I’m all-too aware of because he started building in the same week that I brought my first son home from the hospital.

 

Over the years I have developed various coping strategies – I’m the proud (and possessive) owner of noise cancelling headphones, I often escape to one of my favorite cafés when I’m trying to work from home, and I use a white noise sound track in the nursery. But it was while I was researching the chapter in my forthcoming book about how the environment around us impacts our health, that I learned that my noisy neighbor may be causing more than just annoyance. It turns out, loud noise can be bad for our health.

 

Hearing loss is the most obvious of the noise induced health complications. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of the US population is exposed to noise levels deemed harmful to hearing and that 104 million people are at risk of hearing loss because of excessive noise. The World Health Organization recently warned that 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults around the world are at risk of hearing loss from their personal audio devices.

 

But what interests me is that our noisy world isn’t just damaging our ears. Researchers are increasingly connecting the rising din of the modern world with poor health.

 

Our physiology hasn’t caught up with the fact that times have changed since the days when pre-historic humans were roaming the African savannah and a loud noise signaled a potential threat, so it’s little wonder that noise activates our fight or flight stress response. Although the rumble of traffic, the roar of an overhead aircraft, the pulsing beat of the party next door, or the surround sound drama of your favorite action movie don’t actually threaten your life, your body doesn’t know it. Even the constant barrage of dings and pings from your smart devices can put you on high alert. Noise can increase your blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones, which is why researchers believe excessive noise is associated with an increased incidence of hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke.

 

Next door, the rumbling buzzing contraption has now been replaced with sporadic bashing and thumping from hammer blows to an unrepentant piece of timber. Upstairs, my newborn son is understandably having a hard time with his afternoon nap. He’s not alone in being sleep deprived because of noise. Even if you’re not aware of it, noise from things like traffic or overhead aircraft might mean you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough quality, deep sleep. In fact, sleep disturbance is considered the most concerning effect of noise next to hearing loss, with a clear link between poor sleep and poor health (which I’ve written about previously). Thankfully, my noisy neighbor isn’t allowed to build his house at night, though he has been known to start up before 7am on a Saturday morning. Grrrr.

 

The cacophony next door has meant that this blog post has taken me longer than usual to write. Like for millions of other people around the world, excessive noise can cause difficulty in concentrating. Arline Bronzaft is an environmental psychologist and leading expert on the impact noise has on your concentration and performance. In 1981 she conducted a study at a public school in Manhattan’s Washington Heights in which some of the classrooms faced directly out to an elevated subway track. With trains rattling by every four and a half minutes, the teacher was forced to regularly pause until they passed. When Bronzaft compared the performance of the kids in the noisy classroom to their peers on the opposite, quiet side of the building she found that the kids who were constantly interrupted were nearly one year behind in their reading skills. Fortunately the school took steps to dampen the sound and reading levels had equalized after a year.

 

In an ever-urbanizing, increasingly mechanized world, noise pollution is more severe and widespread than ever before and medical professionals are concerned. “In the 21st Century we are experiencing the man-made plague of environmental noise from which there is virtually no escape, no matter where we are – in our homes and yards, on our streets, in our cars, at theaters, restaurants, parks, arenas, and in other public places,” write Lisa Goines and Louis Hagler, MD in their piece called Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague published in the Southern Medical Journal.

 

Fortunately, there are things you can do if you’re being affected by noise. Ear plugs, noise cancelling headphones, wall insulation and thick window glass can all make a difference in dampening sound. My husband and I have come to the realization that our neighbor is unlikely to ever finish building his house. (He has moved the location of his sandstone steps three times, apparently having not got it right the first or second time). We are also conscious of the fact that the most widespread and well documented subjective response to noise is annoyance, so we’re working hard on practicing equanimity in the interest of neighborly peace. We are also optimists. Instead of starting World War III in our street by making endless noise complaints, we simply buy the occasional lottery ticket and dream of moving away to a mansion with water front views where our biggest noise complaint is the sound of the rolling ocean.

  • Martin

    Hi Shannon

    Being mindful means we become more aware of the noise around us, which then ironically causes us more conscious stress than before, but it has always caused unconscious stress anyway.

    For noisy neighbours NOISEWATCH Australia is worth contacting and reading their info which is very comprehensive and they are very helpful too http://www.noisewatchaus.org.au/

    We have many noisy neighbours, and we too have decided to move, but we have one who reminds us of Mr Noisy of some TV show- he loves renovating old cars, a completely inappropriate activity for a suburb to be sure, but the Council seems helpless and hopeless about doing anything to stop it.

    Fortunately Mr Noisy is moving, not without a lot of noise mind you! We consider this to be an answer to prayer as it was nothing short of a miracle that his wife got sick and they could not live in their dream home that he was never going to move from.

    We were starting to enquire with legal firms about taking Mr Noisy to court and suing him for devaluation of our house value, impacts on health, disturbance of the peace, etc but he quietened down for a month or two and we did not proceed. Then he started up again, then off, then on, but now he is leaving which is such a relief, we just wonder if the next neighbour could be even worse?!?!?
    Legal action is of course very expensive and stressful in itself, so is rarely done, and of course the neighbours noise is often very inconsistent, as ours was. But once our nerves have been rattled every time he starts up again we are back in that stress pattern very quickly.

    This entire society is too noisy, although I am aware that I am also contributing to it myself doing renovations at this time. We are simply too close to each other and need bigger yards and more space, yet we are being crammed into smaller lots and given too many toys from the hardware shop (leaf blowers MUST be the worst invention- use the broom you moron!!!)

    We have decided to move into the country also but it is hard to find somewhere that is not noisy there either. Dogs barking, neighbours who love playing on their dirt bikes, farm machinery, and the biggest curse on the world of Coal Seem Gas mining that is ruining the farmland and its peace and quiet.
    Also in the Country sound travels so far on those flat long roads that you need to be very careful when you inspect the house as you could clearly hear a road on one day but not the next.
    Perhaps we could start up a quiet commune on a couple of thousand hectares on an island in the Pacific ocean???
    Back in the 70's the anti war hippies use to say "Peace Man" as a greeting and as a farewell too, it may be worth starting this saying again for anti noisers!
    Peace Man, and Woman too!
    Martin

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. Thanks especially for the NOISEWATCH Australia link. I had come across the US one but not the Aussie equivalent. I note with interest that the fist line in the site's recent news section is "Perth man denies causing neighbor's fatal heart attack during loud music dispute" which is particularly relevant to the topic of this blog.
    Wishing you peace and quiet,
    Shannon

  • Cruella

    I hope no one ever prays for this to happen to you.
    "We consider this to be an answer to prayer as it was nothing short of a miracle that his wife got sick …."

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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