When one spends time in nature, it can be surprising how quiet the world can be and just how much noise we’ve grown accustomed to in our day-to-day lives. But what we may not understand is that some noises can be more than a nuisance and can actually be harmful to health.
An article published in the journal Environmental Research reported that noisy environments—like living next to a highway—can increase the risk of severe stroke by 30%. This is due (at least partially) to noise stimulating a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala regulates the stress response, which can involve the release of cortisol into the body and cause and increase in blood pressure. In a life-or-death situation, this can provide the drive needed to avoid danger and stay alive. In time, blood pressure will return to normal and cortisol levels will reduce. This is important because prolonged high blood pressure and high cortisol levels can be detrimental to the body and result for cardiovascular complications, such as heart attack and stroke. Additionally, studies have linked chronic stress to immune system suppression, diabetes, arterial plaque buildup (atherosclerosis), psychiatric illness, and possibly cancer.
Loud noise can also slowly damage the important hair cells in the cochlea (located in the inner ear) that are important for hearing. There is a growing body of research that hearing loss is a risk factor for cognitive decline. There are differing theories on why this is the case, from reduced stimulation in the brain to increased social isolation and withdrawal. Nonetheless, it’s a major issue that can be reduced by getting regular hearing screenings and the use of hearing aids, when necessary. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders notes that 25% of people between 65 and 74 years of age experience disabling hearing loss, and this number doubles after age 75.
Outside of moving to a quieter part of the world, there are several things one can do to reduce their exposure to harmful noises and the problems that can result: turn down or turn off the radio or TV when feeling anxious; keep car windows closed when driving; avoid noisy restaurants and bars, when possible; test for ambient noise using a smartphone app; and use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones in loud environments. If you’re experiencing hearing loss, talk to your doctor. The solution might be as simple as removing ear wax during an office visit. Or if indicated, a referral may be made for further testing by an audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist.
Bottom line: Avoid loud noises when you can, and if you’re having difficulty with your hearing, seek care. Not only will it help you carry out your daily activities, but it will help keep your brain in working order as you age.