The banging is excruciating. So are the jack hammering and the sawing and the beeps from the trucks backing up. And it is all outside my door. Living in New York City has many advantages, but one significant downside is the noise. Not only are cars and buses rushing by on the streets at all hours, construction is happening almost everywhere. This month it came to my street, and it is expected to last for quite some time.
Leaving my apartment building now takes some extra navigating — do I take the long way around the block to avoid the noise or do I plug my ears and make a run for it. Neither choice is ideal. Even when I am inside I can hear the ongoing work. Thank goodness I have my noise-cancelling headphones at the ready if the cacophony becomes too much.
Noise Can Inflame Many Health Problems
Noise is a large and growing problem everywhere, but particularly in cities. Noise pollution is not only unpleasant, it is damaging to your health. Numerous studies show links between unwanted noise and hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, sleep disturbances and, of course, hearing loss and tinnitus.
Sustained exposure to noise is also associated with higher levels of stress, which itself exacerbates a myriad of health problems. According to WebMD, “Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.” Yikes!
Noise is Also Unpleasant
Unwanted sound is bothersome for everyone, but it is often worse for people with hearing loss. This may seem odd — if we can’t hear well maybe extra noise goes unnoticed — but the opposite is often the case. Many people with hearing loss have a higher than average sensitivity to loud sounds. In the extreme, this is called hyperacusis, and is quite debilitating. Background noise also makes it harder to pick out the important speech sounds we are craving to hear.
Hearing aids, while very helpful, have limitations — one being that they amplify all sounds, not just the important speech sounds. In other words, hearing aids make the general din of noise pollution even louder! This can make walking by a construction site or an idling bus painful for someone with hearing loss, while just mildly disturbing for a person with typical hearing.
Given my hearing loss, I actively protect the hearing that I have left. I wear noise-cancelling headphones on planes and other loud places — even the movies — and often walk down the street with my fingers plugging my ears to block loud sounds. As a last resort, I will turn off my hearing aids to protect myself from noise, but I don’t like to do this as it impacts my ability to navigate safely and communicate well.
Noise is Finally Getting More Attention
The good news is that the issue of noise pollution is getting more attention. A recent article in The New Yorker asked whether noise pollution is the next big public health crisis. This was followed by an op-ed in The Hill that argued that government action is long overdue. Media attention is often an important catalyst for regulatory change.
In the meantime, technology companies are beginning to address the issue. The Fall 2019 software update for the Apple Watch will include a Noise app that scans your environment and warns you when decibel levels are getting too high. Hopefully this feature will make monitoring noise levels easier and more routine — an important first step towards raising awareness about the importance of protecting your hearing.
Readers, does noise negatively impact your life?