Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Apr

How Noise Impacts Your Health

Do you feel inundated with clamor? Bothered by loud, obtrusive ruckus? Unnerved by the incessant racket of your neighborhood, your city, humanity and all its instruments in general? (Yes, I’m surprised there’s no pill for it yet.) Blame the blaring contraptions our species has come up with. Blame the obliviousness (or grating intentionality) of some people who impose their noise on everyone else, especially at the most ridiculous times of day: contractors’ jackhammers going at 6:00 a.m., the snowblower grinding next door at midnight, the leaf blower at any time of day (in my humble opinion), muffler-deficient cars (with thumping bass) at all hours. Then there’s the incessant traffic, the planes, the trains, not to mention the neighbor’s yippie dog that won’t ever shut up. Is it any wonder the word noise comes from nausea? If you’re one of the ones who can’t seem to get far enough away from all the din, rest assured that 1) you’re in good company (Do I see hands?) and 2) your efforts are all in the name of good health – both mental and physical.

Some of us are naturally less sensitive to noise than others. Maybe we grew up in a noisy, busy household and built a tolerance to it. Maybe it’s just our personalities to feel energized by hustle and bustle. Alternatively, others of us go to every length to avoid it like the plague. We have noise canceling earphones or an array of fountains, nature CDs, or white noise machines to block out whatever clamor we can. (I survived the cacophony of college with a 14-inch window fan running day and night.) We make time alone just for the silence of it. When it comes to noise, type and time matter as well. The low hum of a favorite coffee shop might not even register, but on certain days the sound of the neighbor’s whistling can bring us to the end of patience.

A friend of mine recently turned me on to a book called In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. Prochnik’s a self-proclaimed noise-a-phobe who sets out to probe both the culture of noise and science behind silence. His quest takes him everywhere from urban streets to university labs to a Quaker meeting to Trappist retreats. The stakes are high, experts tell him: one-third of us, Prochnik learns, demonstrate measurable hearing loss.

And it’s not just our ears that feel the toll. Noise, experts explain, causes stress that can result in serious health risk. A New York Times article last week reported ominous findings of a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Noise, and the stress and sleep disruption it imposes, appears to be responsible for 1.8% of heart attacks in Western Europe and 2.7% in more densely populated Germany. As difficult as it is to assign causation in these types of studies, here’s what we know. Reviews of existing studies examining occupational noise show a clear link to hypertension, as does air traffic noise for blood pressure increase (even while subjects were sleeping!), for both adults and children. Furthermore, noise has also been shown to increase catecholamines, the “fight or flight” hormones. We all know what comes of the chronic stress hormone cascade…. Although the research linking noise exposure to heightened heart attack and stroke risk has been mixed, it’s not much of a jump to accept that chronic noise exposure contributes to compromised cardiac and overall health.

Noise, experts have found, takes an additional toll on our mental health and cognitive functioning. Exposure to air traffic noise, one of the most studied of areas, appears to increase the incidence of physician visits for psychologically based symptoms and the intake of related medication. Research subjects exposed to noise tend to perform more poorly on “complex tasks.” Children fare worse still with impaired reading comprehension and long-term memory. When it comes to run-of-the-mill household noise, children raised in louder, more chaotic homes demonstrate more difficulty in language acquisition and delay in cognitive development. They also show more anxiety.

Interestingly, nature sounds show a contrary, therapeutic influence. Research from Johns Hopkins demonstrates that nature sounds (in addition to natural scenes) substantially reduce patients’ experience of pain during bone marrow extraction (one of the more excruciating medical procedures even with the local anesthetic typically offered). Although “a physician’s skill in pain management” influenced the success of the nature-focused “distraction” techniques, even with the most skilled practitioners, significant differences were reported between patients who had the procedure with the nature enhancements and the control group in a normal procedure room (3.9 versus 5.7 on the pain scale). A previous study had shown up to a “five-fold” pain reduction during bronchoscopy procedures.

Research supports the positive effects of nature sound not just for acute illness and pain management but also for everyday stress recovery. Bird sounds, even more than water fountains, reduce people’s perception of urban noise.

However distorted the noise of contemporary culture, we’re clearly intended to be an auditorily oriented species. As Prochnik discovers in his interviews with audiologists, physicians, and other experts, hearing is one of our most complex and fundamental senses. He calls it “the sensory factor determining sustainability.” In other words, our ability to hear predators and interpret the auditory cues of our environment was perhaps the most crucial for survival. It’s not the auditory experience that’s skewed, it’s the content we’re taking in. To some experts, we’re actually auditorily deficient these days. Paul Shepard, in Coming Home to the Pleistocene, cites work by anthropologist Walter Ong that contrasts the more natural “‘acoustical event world’” of the wild with the “modern ‘hypervisual culture’” of today. We’re inundated with noise, but we’re starved for the sounds our brains evolved to perceive and process. As Prochnik explains, it’s like we stuff ourselves with junk food noise but still hunger for the sound that truly nourishes us. Our “aural diet,” he says, matters more than we understand.

One researcher has devoted his work to changing that. Bryan Pijanowski, Associate Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, recently published a paper that lays out a framework for a crucial new field called “soundscape ecology.” The sounds of biological (biophony) and non-biological, natural sources (geophony), he suggests, can help counter typical urban noise, but they can do something much more fundamentally significant (Primal, if you will). The recovery of natural sound – the original soundtrack of our evolutionary roots – can help reconnect us with our natural world – and the nature-based aural experiences which inspire both peace and order on a neurological level.

That’s music to the Primal ears, I’d say.

Thanks for reading today. Let me know what you think and how noise/natural sound play out in your everyday life and well-being. Have a great day, everyone!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Yes! Similar to Batty, I got a dawn simulator for Christmas, which wakes me up with gradual light and the sound of birds announcing the morning. It’s a lovely way to wake up!

    Still, there is nothing like the peace of nature – deep silence, rustling leaves, the hooting of an owl…I do believe that there is something deep within us that resonates with these sounds; that is why a post like this strikes a chord with so many…

    Aila wrote on April 14th, 2011
  2. I get a fresh pair of earplugs every morning at work as I work around heavy equipment. The noise is just intolerable without them. I use them to sleep sometimes as well.

    I am amazed at the number of co-workers who don’t use them.

    Easygojoe wrote on April 14th, 2011
  3. omg, my ex boyfriend used to listen to music and watch tv at the same time. i couldnt stand it!!
    now i live in the city which can get pretty noisy on fri and sat nights so ear plugs are pretty handy. and essential for travelling when you dont know where youll be sleeping…

    emma wrote on April 14th, 2011
  4. Great post! I think it is vital for all of us to turn down the volume on the noise that surrounds us everyday and just have peace and quiet. Hikes are what I like to do to get away and listen to nature versus annoying noises.

    James wrote on April 14th, 2011
  5. I have a pair of ear plugs from etymotic. They give a flat cut, designed for listening to music, but they are great for other loud situations.

    I agree with Mark about the leaf blowers. I HATE them. The sound travels very far. I also think a broom works better.

    Matthew wrote on April 14th, 2011
  6. Digital audio quality is a big-but-little-known issue that impacts psychological and even, in extreme cases, physical health. Get some good earmuffs to protect your ears when you don’t need to listen carefully, get good headphones with strong magnets and large drivers, preferably from German makers, and listen only to FLAC and APE. Find the sources of our audio. Even FLAC and APE can come from faulty digital sources.

    Mpeg compression in audio, video, and image can be very damaging. It’s just cheap, easy, and effective. Just like grains!

    Aidan wrote on April 14th, 2011
  7. Everyone blames airplanes for noise problem related issues, but I know that highway traffic noise as well as living close to train tracks can disturb sleep the same as air traffic. I personally love listening to airplanes as I grew up on an airport as some do not mind trains or church bells etc. My neighbors in Europe hated my Harley which was stock ppes etc, but my American neighbors loved the sound of my much louder Harley lol (back in USA then)
    I still dislike highway noise as well as trains and miss the days of sleeping with my windows open to listen to nature at night or day. I often even just detest the noise of radio and tv at times and just need silence for a while. Thankfully I can get to the country for normal silence which is not quiet.

    Tamara wrote on April 14th, 2011
  8. I am always struggling with noise since I spend the majority of my day (10+ hours) in public areas. I’ve tried both ear plugs as well as headphones, however, both feel very unnatural to me.

    After reading your post, I am beginning to think that trying a fan or nature sounds might be a better solution. I will give them a shot, thanks!

    Jeremy Priestner wrote on April 14th, 2011
  9. I hate loud noise to the point that my social life suffers at times.

    Regretting Eating Cookies wrote on April 14th, 2011
  10. Makes perfect sense. If I was a caveman id imagine birds would be like a natural security system. When theyre chatting and singing all is good in the hood, but the first indicator of danger would be the birds (who are so vulnerable on the ground) taking flight to desert an area at first notice of predators. So obviously disneyesque singing birds allows our primal genes to relax to fullest

    Justin wrote on April 15th, 2011
  11. I live in London so I’m fairly use to urban sounds. My specific problem is the fact I live in a very small studio flat in a house where all the other flats are rented out and neighbours can sometimes be noisy. The people upstairs have wooden floors and although the current tenants are generally pretty good regarding not putting on loud music, they can be heavy footed. If they come in late after a night out, it sounds a bit like the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park.

    I have a thunderstorm CD I sometimes put on to drown out other sounds and I usually find that pretty good – rain is much like white noise.

    Indiscreet wrote on April 15th, 2011
  12. This is very coincidental. Yesterday when this was published my neighbor was on his back porch listening to very loud rock music and screaming “f-bombs” every two seconds in his otherwise incoherant rant.

    now that i’m attempting to focus enough to read this post, my boyfriend is listening to sports talk radio very loudly in the next room and I find it to be incredibly obnoxious.

    I can’t get into nature cds. the regular hum of traffic, music or other noise doesn’t bother me, but I can’t focus when there’s others talking around me.

    thegetinshapegirl wrote on April 15th, 2011
  13. I bring ear plugs wherever I go. I often need them to get to sleep due to the sound of cars outside and people meandering around my apt., the loudness of movie theatres also gets to me. Good hearing I guess …

    Allie wrote on April 15th, 2011
  14. I worked for years in ‘bullpens’ and nearly went nuts. Now I work at home. My office overlooks the Cleveland Metro Parks and right now I’m listening to the beautiful call of the birds. Doesn’t get much better than his. I have a difficult time at events with a lot of people due to the noise and chaos so I tend to avoid them if possible.

    dave wrote on April 15th, 2011
  15. Good read but what about the smells?!?!

    Russell Deasley wrote on April 15th, 2011
  16. I have inherited hearing loss and constant tinnitis. Loud noises HURT and that’s that. Makes me overwhelmed quickly in shopping malls, etc. It’s like a social anxiety disorder. And the tinnitis means I never, ever get to experience the peace and quiet of nature because there’s the neverending background buzz and click and hum from my head.

    Shelli wrote on April 15th, 2011
  17. Great post! My husband and I lived in a small apartment in Southern California for a few years. There are times when I thought that I really might go crazy over all the noise. I could hear snoring from the apartment next door, coughing from the nearby assisted living facility, neighbors talking on phones all day, phones ringing and then recording a message, etc. It was completely overwhelming. Fortunately, I moved out of California and now live in a rural area where there is still some neighbor noise, but not nearly as much as before. I love music, but am often content to have silence while I read, cook, or work. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to move to a quieter area. Since I am strongly introverted, the quiet is refreshing, while the noise, especially people noise, is draining.

    Sarah wrote on April 15th, 2011
  18. Great post, Mark. It’s comforting to see I’m not the one troubled by too much noise. One subset that’s been especially troubling to me is people who talk too loudly than is necessary for them to be heard (as is the case so often in restaurants, on busses, etc.). One great improvement in NYC is that riders in cabs are now entitled to a noise free ride (i.e. drivers are no longer allowed to talk on their cell phones, and the radio isn’t allowed either).

    On the other end of the spectrum is music, which can totally rock our world if it’s what we like. I wrote this post on what goes on neurologically when we listen to music http://bit.ly/fv4GHl Thought your readers might like it.

    Again, great post.
    Susan

    Susan Alexander wrote on April 15th, 2011
  19. Do I feel inundated by clamor…?

    I have a four year old boy.

    I think old people go deaf so they don’t have to go through all the noise again with their grandkids. Seriously, my kid even kicks the wall in his sleep.

    em wrote on April 16th, 2011
  20. Any thoughts on the best earplugs for sleeping?

    The foam ones are OK, but they could be more comfortable and could block noise better. Especially when tossing around on the pillow they come loose…

    Kyle wrote on April 16th, 2011
  21. Hi Mark,

    I was wondering, how would tinnitus fit into this? It is noise being percieved by our brains after all!

    Anyone else suffer from it? :(

    Dave wrote on April 16th, 2011
    • Dave, I have tinnitus and don’t know if it contributes to my noise sensitivity, but I have a very difficult time around noise. I’m hyper-aware of sounds and get agitated easily by them. Maybe since I’ve trained my brain to ignore the sounds due to tinnitus additional noise is intolerable.

      dave wrote on April 16th, 2011
  22. Tinnitus can be a sign of a disease, ever heard of Miniere’s disease? If tinnitus is coupled with vertigo then you should go see your doctor.

    Meggan wrote on April 17th, 2011
    • Mine is in both ears, constant with no vertigo. I had it checked by doctors and they said it was just something I had to live with. Actually a Navy doctor said he could do surgery to eliminate the sound but I wouldn’t be able to hear from that ear. I declined.

      dave wrote on April 17th, 2011
  23. Anyone know of an Internet radio station that plays appropriate nature sounds by time of day?

    Ed wrote on April 17th, 2011
    • This is pretty dang cool! It lets you combine 4 different channels with lots of sounds to choose from!

      http://naturesoundsfor.me/Anza

      The sound of Darth Vader in a snowstorm beside a campfire with giggling children anyone? :P

      Dave wrote on April 17th, 2011
  24. we’re building a home on an island to escape the noise of civilization to some extent anyway…still not totally quiet (we occasionally hear trains/helicopters etc) but SO much nicer than living in town!

    Lakina wrote on April 17th, 2011
  25. Sound is such an important part of day. As someone who has recently had to buy a hearing aid, I can vouch for what a silent world it becomes as your hearing fades. It was the bird song that I missed most.

    Noise pollution is clearly just as bad. I love having quiet time and don’t feel the need to turn on the TV or radio just to disguise the fact that I am alone. I love my alone times.

    Dawn wrote on April 17th, 2011
  26. You might also explore the health problems associated with the subsonic noise produced by the windmill farms that are sprouting up.

    Dean May wrote on April 18th, 2011
  27. Does anyone have a line on some good audio recordings of natural sounds? I wouldn’t mind just playing them in my house.

    Ruby wrote on April 18th, 2011
  28. I was hoping this article would touch on music. It gives examples of healthy and unhealthy sounds, but as a music-obsessed college student I would have found a portion on music very relevant.

    Jennifer wrote on April 18th, 2011
  29. Loving your blog, getting ready to get your book too.

    It makes complete sense that noise contributes to heart problems since magnesium is critical to cardiovascular health. Here’s an interesting quote from The Magnesium Miracle by Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D. :

    “Loud sounds cause a reflexive flight-or-fight response, and constant loud sound is not something the body gets used to and ignores–it must continually adapt to the noise, all the while using up valuable nutrients such as magnesium to do that job.”

    Anyway thought that might be of interest! Keep up the good work!

    Julie wrote on April 26th, 2011
  30. i’m a little late in the game here, but anybody ever use a sound machine to sleep better at night? i live right up against a transit train line that runs all night and it’s incredibly loud… heavy curtains and carpets have slightly lessened it but not completely. any thoughts on a machine that plays either white noise or nature sounds?

    Al wrote on July 15th, 2011
  31. @Al — I’m a light sleeper and I use a fan to block out ambient noise. It works great, it’s inexpensive, and I can increase or decrease the speed/white noise effect as needed.

    honeybee wrote on July 18th, 2011
  32. I live on a busy street in Los Angeles. I have learned the hard way. Finding a nice and affordable living space that is safe out here has become nearly impossible. I value peace and quiet and enjoy concentrating…this is NOT the place…from nosey neighbors, to babies crying, to dogs barking, to the constant traffic and living one block from a major intersection is like living near a NASCAR starting line…I hear the nervous anxiety ridden acceleration of the cars, motorcycles. I ALWAYS have to look out for pedestrians walking in front of my building in hopes to no run anyone over while crossing 3 lanes of traffic just to make a left turn from the driveway…suffice it to say I have learned the hard way. It’s to the point where I’m irritable almost all the time due to the trickle down/domino effect of things…to noisy, can’t focus, makes paying bills figuring finances or reading or making art nearly impossible, which makes me late on my bills, which makes me grouchy…yes…years ago I should have moved but now it’s to the point where I literally feel ‘stuck’…and pulling myself out by my own bootstraps feels impossible…I have a realtor app for my iPhone which I check regularly…it’s to the point I’m tired before I begin a day…I’m hoping for a miracle but don’t know where to look…and I think some people on this page can relate…it’s amazing the toll this nonstop noise creates, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ I feel it CONSTANTLY…I find myself sitting on my sofa saying, “I gotta get outta here, I gotta get outta here” and run like a loon with cabin fever…I love to go camping and take my 4×4 away from people, and any threat of noise…it’s the only time I sleep peacefully…I to have resorted to sleeping pills or anything that will knock me out to sleep…HELP ME OBI WAN KENOBI YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE!!!

    Mike wrote on December 4th, 2012

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