The noise caused by trains, planes and automobiles is like a heart-threatening toxin that gets into your body. It can’t be measured by a blood test or found in a chemical analysis of your food, the air you breathe or the water you drink. But it’s just as damaging as the more familiar toxins found in these sources.
If you commute to work every day, say medical researchers, you may be in extra danger.
Let’s see how bad it is, and what we can do about it. . .
The loud sounds that often surround us may seem ordinary and insignificant – “background noise,” as the expression goes — but they are a major cause of disease and aging.
According to researchers at the University Medical Center Mainz in Germany, noise may appear to be just a bother to your ears, but its penetrating influence goes deeper – leading to cellular changes and disruptions that magnify the risk for heart disease, blockages of the arteries that supply blood to the heart, high blood pressure, stroke and heart failure.1
The German scientists say the evidence points to the fact that noise sets off the body’s stress responses by activating the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is the neural network that releases hormones modifying heart rate, blood pressure, contractions of the digestive tract, sweating and a host of other responses. When you are frequently exposed to annoying noise levels, these reactions – which are linked to what’s called the fight or flight reaction – can damage blood vessels in ways that make them stiffen and render them unable to relax.
Being in a chronic fight-or-flight state may lead to hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Noise may also be linked to higher levels of oxidative stress (free radical damage) in the body.
Messes With Your Heart Beat
The same German researchers have found that the higher your exposure to stressful noise, the greater chance you have of developing atrial fibrillation, a rapid and irregular heartbeat that can lead to other heart issues.2 (Atrial fibrillation is the most common form of heart arrythmia.)
“The relationship between noise annoyance and atrial fibrillation is an important finding that may also explain why noise can lead to more strokes,” says researcher Thomas Münzel.
Along with heart problems, a study by scientists in Switzerland demonstrates that noise from traffic and airplanes overhead can increase your chances of developing diabetes.
Noise at night that disturbs sleep is especially troubling. Their analysis shows that people who live near a busy street where loud automobile noise continues into the night run a doubled risk of diabetes linked to noise.3
Bikers Need Earplugs as Well as Helmets
Of course, all that noise also endangers our hearing, even when we may not be aware that our daily routines are putting our hearing at risk.
Researchers in Canada have found that commuters who take public transportation or ride a bicycle to work may incur damage to their hearing abilities caused by the noisy trains, buses and cars that surround them.
There’s more to fear than hearing loss. “We now are starting to understand that (this type of) chronic excessive noise exposure leads to significant systemic pathology, such as depression, anxiety, increased risk of chronic diseases and increased accident risk,” warns researcher Vincent Lin.
Dr. Lin and his team of researchers were surprised at how much noise commuters experience every time they travel to work. They found that although much of the time the sounds on subways and buses and in the street were within levels that were supposed to be non-damaging to hearing, there were frequent bursts of loud noise that were strong enough to threaten hearing loss.
An Epidemic of Hearing Loss
Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say that one in four Americans have suffered hearing loss from the noise around them – and this health problem may be the least recognized health issue suffered by older citizens.4 They also point out, “Hearing loss is the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States and is twice as prevalent as diabetes or cancer.”
All this research suggests that more of us should be wearing ear plugs. I recommend looking into the kind of ear plugs that many professional musicians wear. They can be adjusted to let in more or less sound. Simple devices like these may be just the thing you need to protect your hearing, your heart and other vulnerable organs from the destructive power of noise.