Noise Pollution and Your Health
The harmful effects of excessive noise have been well documented for more than 50 years.
Numerous studies have linked noise pollution to increased anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Even small increases in unwanted ambient sound have significant effects. In 2011, for example, scientists studying people living near seven major European airports found that a 10-decibel (dB) increase in aircraft noise was associated with a 28% increase in anxiety medication use. Another study found that people living in areas with more road traffic noise were 25% more likely than those living in quieter neighborhoods to have symptoms of depression. Similarly, people exposed to noise pollution were found to be significantly more likely to have heart problems like atrial fibrillation compared to those unaffected by noise.
Air pollution and noise pollution have negative health impacts on all socioeconomic groups, rich and poor. However, the risks may not be evenly shared; it is often society’s poorest who live and work in the most polluted environments. Furthermore, these same people may be more impacted by pollution’s damaging effects than more advantaged groups of society.
Noise is a Health Problem for Both Children and Adults
In the 1970s, a team of psychologists discovered that children living on the lower, noisier floors of urban buildings had difficulty distinguishing similar words, such as “thick” and “sick.” They also struggled with reading more than kids who lived on higher floors. “In those conditions, noise may be masking opportunities to learn
language,” says Jenny Saffran, a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison. By mimicking urban environments like the Bridge Apartments in her lab, Saffran has shown that background noise not only impairs children’s ability to recognize familiar words, it also prevents toddlers from mastering new ones.
Cardiovascular Disease, Anxiety, Depression and Neurological Disease
Numerous studies have linked noise pollution to increased anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. More recent research also points to associations between noise pollution and neurological degeneration, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
You Cannot Tune It Out: Dynamics of the Brain’s Reaction to Noise
Some speculate that noise is simply annoying and if people don’t notice it or are able to “tune it out,” noise is harmless. However, there is growing evidence that this assumption is untrue.
Noise induces higher levels of stress, says Thomas Munzel, a cardiologist at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
When you experience noise in the middle of the night, you have an awakening reaction,” Münzel says. “You can close your eyes but you cannot close your ears. Whether it’s the hum of an always-on TV, the beeping of hospital equipment, the honking of cars, or the window-rattling noise of airplanes overhead, noise triggers the brain’s “fight or flight” response.
Whenever stressful noise is perceived, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus immediately signals the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream, an
evolutionary measure to react rapidly in life-threatening situations. Adrenaline and another stress hormone called cortisol bring on physiological changes, including a spike in heart rate and blood pressure.
Chronic exposure to noise keeps this stress response activated continuously. Eventually, it starts to wear the body down, causing mental and physical health problems. In 2013, Münzel and his colleagues simulated the detrimental effects of nighttime noise in a study of 75 healthy adults. The participants listened to recordings containing varying amounts of aircraft noise while they slept at home. Participants slept worse on the night they heard the most noise, and what’s more, lab tests conducted the next morning showed they had more vascular damage and inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones.
These early findings were recently confirmed in the US by Ahmed Tawakol, an HMS associate professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael Osborne, an HMS instructor in medicine at Mass General. They used advanced PET scanning to show that transportation noise is associated with heightened activity of the amygdala relative to regulatory cortical regions. This activity triggers stress pathways, including inflammation, that lead to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Participants with a higher ratio of amygdalar to cortical activity had more risk for adverse outcomes in follow-up. The link persisted even after accounting for other disease risk factors.
Highlights and Citations
In general, studies find that aircraft noise increases the incidence of cardiovascular disease, sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression in the general population. Children suffer in academic performance. All of these impacts are compounded by nano particulate air pollution (including lead) from airplane exhaust.
Noise has long been recognized as a hazard to human health. By 1968, when the U.S. Public Health Service co-sponsored a conference on the topic, the effects of noise on hearing loss and physiologic stress responses were already recognized. Since then, dozens of investigations have documented the effects of community noise on children’s cognition, their ability to learn, and the benefits of mitigating that noise. The neurotoxicity of noise extends to older adults, precipitating cognitive decline and dementia through direct effects on AD pathology and inflammatory processes, yet this is a largely understudied area of research.
Aviation Noise Impacts: State of the Science, National Library of Medicine, 2017:
Noise is defined as “unwanted sound.” Aircraft noise is one, if not the most detrimental environmental effects of aviation. It can cause community annoyance, disrupt sleep, adversely affect academic performance of children, and increase the risk for cardiovascular disease of people living in the vicinity of airports.
This study was published by: Impacts of Science Group of the Committee for Aviation Environmental Protection of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO is funded and directed by 193 national governments to support their diplomacy and cooperation in air transportation.
Relationship among long-term aircraft noise exposure, blood pressure profile, and arterial stiffness, 2019.
This study demonstrated that people exposed to aircraft noise have significantly greater risk of heart attack:
Abel E. Moreyra, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the study's lead author, said noise can cause chronic stress, disturbances in sleep and emotional distress such as anxiety and depression, all of which impact cardiovascular health. Chronic stress is known to cause hormonal changes linked with inflammation and changes in the blood vessels that are associated with heart disease. The study compared people who lived with high levels of transportation noise (an average of 65 decibels or higher over the course of the day) and those with low noise exposure (a daily average of less than 50 decibels). The heart attack rate was 72% higher in places with high transportation noise exposure, and researchers calculated that high noise exposure accounted for about 1 in 20 heart attacks in New Jersey.
Moreyra also noted that, "Air pollution and noise go hand-in-hand." Living near airports also means greater exposure to airplane exhaust and other forms of particulate air pollution. Previous studies have linked particulate air pollution with cardiovascular damage and increased rates of heart disease.
Residential exposure to aircraft noise and hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases: multi-airport retrospective study, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), 2013
Special Note: Support for the study was provided by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as part of the Partnership for Air Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction (PARTNER), a multi-university cooperative research organization with the primary objective to inform solutions for aviation-related noise and emissions problems.
The study focused on the U.S. population age 65 and older and found that 2.3% of hospitalizations for cardiovascular disease among older people living near airports were attributable to aircraft noise.
It was surprising to find that living close to an airport, and therefore being exposed to aircraft noise, can adversely affect your cardiovascular health, even beyond exposure to air pollution and traffic noise.
Our study emphasizes that interventions that reduce noise exposures could reduce cardiovascular risks among people living near airports. This can be done through improved aircraft technology and optimized flight paths, by using runways strategically to avoid when possible residential areas when people are sleeping, and by soundproofing of homes and other buildings..
Health Effects of Noise Exposure in Children, Current Environmental Report, 2015.
Environmental noise exposure from aircraft noise is associated with a range of health outcomes in children. Children demonstrate annoyance responses to noise, and noise is also related to lower well-being and stress responses, such as increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. There is growing evidence for an association with increased hyperactivity symptoms. Studies also suggest changes in cardiovascular functioning, and there is some evidence for an effect on low birth weight. There is robust evidence for an effect of school noise exposure on children's cognitive skills such as reading and memory, as well as on standardized academic test scores.
More recent studies point to increasing rates of dementia associated with traffic noise:
Long-term community noise exposure in relation to dementia, cognition, and cognitive decline in older adults, Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 2021.
In a study of over 5,000 participants, an increment of 10 A-weighted decibels (dBA) in noise corresponded to 36% and 29% higher odds of prevalent mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s Disease. Noise level was associated with worse global cognitive performance, principally in perceptual speed.
“Chemical and structural hazards in the environment, such as air pollution and lead, may influence cognitive decline and dementia risk. Another environmental exposure that could plausibly affect dementia risk is exposure to community noise—from nearby roadways, railways, air transportation, industry, and construction.”
- Journal of the Alzheimer's Association