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Noise Can Hurt Your Heart

black and white photo of man clutching chest in painTwo of our kids, Kathleen and Jimmy, live and work in Manhattan, the one in New York, not Kansas. When Jimmy first moved there, he learned to sleep to a recording of soothing sounds of nature, like a soft breeze rustling the leaves to mask the urban noise outside his window. Kathleen and Jimmy, who now live in the Chelsea and West Village neighborhoods of New York City respectively, grew up in quiet Prairie Village. They may live in the “city that never sleeps,” but they still need a peaceful slumber each night.
When you sleep, you automatically shut down your other four senses, but your hearing stays “on,” so noises can disturb the depth and quality of your sleep, even if they don’t awaken you.
It turns out that noise isn’t just annoying; it can eventually take a toll on your health and well-being. Loud noise activates our “fight or flight” response. This over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system can make you jittery, wear down your resilience, and lead to anxiety and depression.
You probably already know that loud noises can be damaging to your hearing. Prolonged exposure to sounds louder than 85 decibels (dB), such as a leaf blower, live rock concert, gunshot blast or fireworks, can indeed cause permanent hearing loss.
But now, experts are calling for noise pollution to also be considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, similar to air pollution, smoking or obesity. Startling new studies from scientists in Germany and Denmark show that people and animals who are exposed to frequent loud noises suffer higher rates of heart failure, irregular heart rhythms, like afib, and heart attacks. Noise pollution causes a surge in stress hormones and subsequently causes elevations of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
New research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that chronic loud noise also appears to be a driving factor behind oxidative stress and metabolic disturbances leading to diabetes, atherosclerosis (plaques and blockages in the arteries) and premature aging.
We don’t know the exact sound volume threshold that triggers the heart disease risk, but experts warn us to avoid chronic exposure to sound levels over 60 dB. Most of us probably wouldn’t consider 60 dB especially loud; conversational speech or the noise made by an air-conditioning unit both register about 60 dB.
The toilet flushing registers 75 dB, a lawn mower 90 dB, a table saw 105 dB, a jet taking off 120 dB, and a balloon popping 125 dB. Chronic noise pollution, such as from road traffic, railroads, airplanes, and overhead public announcement speakers, may be enough to trigger health problems. Unfortunately, with time we don’t develop a tolerance to noise. In fact, the longer you’re exposed to excessive noise, the harder it is on your heart and sense of well-being.
Protect Yourself from Noise:
Admittedly, avoiding the deafening din isn’t always possible these days, but it’s important to seek out respites from noise. If you must sleep or spend time in noisy environments, use hearing protection. Instead of fans, many people prefer white-noise machines to mask environmental noises at night. These can mimic soothing sounds from nature.
I’ve recently started wearing noise-canceling headphones on long flights, and I find that they really make jet travel less stressful. Hearing experts warn to not turn the volume on headphones up past the halfway mark.
If you know you are going to be in a loud environment, use earplugs that totally block the ear canal. If you’re using loud tools or are going hunting or attending a noisy sporting event, use earmuffs that fit completely over both ears. Don’t leave your cell phone in your bedroom at night; the noises it makes will likely jar you out of deep sleep and erode the restorative power of your nighttime rest.
Take-home Message:
Loud background noise in your day-to-day life and/or in your bedroom is dangerous to your heart. More research on this topic is needed, but consider this new study another reason to avoid exposure to loud noise levels. You will be saving your hearing and might be protecting your heart.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD