You know from attending a concert or mowing the lawn that loud noise can cause hearing loss. As described by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to loud noise pollution over time can harm the delicate hair cells and membranes inside the cochlea, the spiral cavity of the inner ear. Hair cells can get worn out by even just one exposure to loud noise, causing irreversible damage.
With this in mind, scientists in Europe and the U.S. have wondered whether traffic noise causes damage not just to the ears, but to other organs in the body. Several studies have been conducted in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S. between 2000 and 2021 to measure the health risks of noise pollution. As it turns out, all of them have shown a significant link between outside noises and cardiovascular disease.
How Noise Pollution Became Associated with Poor Heart Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) linked frequent, high levels of noise to heart issues in 2009. However, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence to back up the claim.
This changed when scientists in Europe began conducting new research. A German study published in Noise & Health in 2018, for instance, found that people living near the Frankfurt Airport between 2005 and 2010 were 7 percent more likely to suffer from a stroke than those living in quieter areas. The data also suggested that extremely loud bursts of aircraft noise at night increased stroke risk as well. This was true even when long-term noise exposure was relatively low.
Another study published in the European Heart Journal in February 2021 found a link between exposure to aircraft noise and deaths caused by heart disease. Scientists analyzed nearly 25,000 cardiovascular deaths from 2000 to 2015 of people who lived near the Zurich Airport in Switzerland. Upon examining nighttime mortality, the researchers learned that exposure to extreme aircraft noise significantly increased the risk of cardiovascular death.
In addition, a 2018 review from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) showed that traffic noise may increase the risk of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke, and heart failure. Researchers collected data from several noise studies that explained why transportation noise could harm the cardiovascular system.
How Traffic Noise Damages the Cardiovascular System
How can noise from traffic and airplanes do damage to the heart? According to researchers from the 2018 JACC review, it starts with a typical body response. Frequent, lower levels of noise disturb sleep and daily activities, causing a person to feel tired and annoyed. Or, a particularly loud noise during sleep can trigger the body’s fight or flight response, even if the person remains unconscious.
Either way, the body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, in response. Increased stress can lead to chronic health problems, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and inflammation. Any of these issues can become precursors to heart disease.
Caveats in the Studies on Noise Pollution and Heart Health
Some investigators believe that these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, those who live in areas with high levels of traffic may also be exposed to high levels of air pollution. It can be hard to separate the effects of air pollution from traffic noise. In addition, air pollution is closely linked to cardiovascular disease, per a 2014 study in Toxicological Research. Exposure to both air pollution and traffic sounds may compound the negative effects.
Still, many scientists believe that there is enough evidence to show how traffic noise can harm the body on its own. Most studies focusing on the negative impact of traffic noise have accounted for air pollution and other compounding factors. A 2017 study published in the European Heart Journal also suggested that traffic noise alone can seriously damage cardiovascular health.
Living with Loud Noise
If you live in an area with lots of traffic, what can you do? First, investigators recommend that you soundproof your house. You may consider upgrading the windows that face the street, or hanging up heavy curtains to dampen outside noise. There is also a variety of unique, inexpensive, and comfortable earplugs you can try. Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones can help reduce or even eliminate sound.
Note that prolonged noise over 70 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss, per the CDC. For reference, a normal conversation is roughly 60 dB while an approaching subway train is about 100 dB. An extremely loud noise, such as a firecracker, is about 140-150 dB.
If you can, many investigators recommend that you escape to a quieter area when you have time. A simple walk around a nearby, quieter town may greatly reduce stress levels and give you a break from the street noise. And remember: Getting used to the noise is not a good thing. It can still have a bad effect on your health, so it’s always important to try and reduce the loud sounds in your daily life.