Your health at threat, an ignored, but not silent killer
If I told you there was something in your daily life that was damaging your health, you would want to know about it. Right?
Well there is.
And emerging evidence shows its impact to be wide ranging:
It raises Breast cancer contraction rates by around 20% from initial studies
Your Stress Hormone levels increase by between 15 and 20%
It adversely impacts on your ability to concentrate
Your risk of High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) is 30 to 40% higher
Insomnia levels are much higher and consequently so is Fatigue
The risk of Heart Attack of 30%, increasing to 80% after 10 years exposure
And at higher exposures, rates of Hearing Loss Dramatically increase
One Factor causes all of these?
Yes there is one factor in your life that impacts on all of these. This is not smoking, drug taking, inactivity, prior illness or extreme over-eating. This is an issue that most of us experience and deal with on a daily basis.
Scientists have proven the impacts, but can’t fully explain all the results. The mechanism (for most impacts) is thought to be a disruption to the bodies ability to recover and heal itself. So while this factor may only “cause” a couple of the above issues, it’s effect is to weaken our bodies natural resistance thus impacting in all of these areas.
So What is It?
So what is the factor? It is Noise. Yes regular, common Noise.
And it doesn’t need to be extreme noise. Many of the above factors were documented on the basis of sleeping environments louder than 40 decibels (which is the level of quiet conversation). Or in daytime environments louder than 55 decibels (slightly above the level of a floor fan). Some, such as the heart rate effect and hearing loss were documented at higher levels >70 decibels.
In evolutionary terms, noise has been a marker of ‘danger’ and our bodies react to this, creating stress hormones, which make us sleep lighter, ensuring our bodies are “ready to act”. As they do this, they are not resting and recovering to their best ability. Over weeks, months and years, this failure to recover and repair builds up in our bodies, creating the medical impacts the research is measuring.
The Noise in our Lives
Noise is also strongly influenced by the built environment. Higher density living and spaces with hard surfaces become echo chambers, increasing noise levels by reflection. The absence or inadequacy of sound insulation is also a factor, particularly in apartment living, but also in the typical Australian house which is designed to be open to the outdoors. But excessive outdoor noise is often driving us inside, sealing up our houses and forcing the use of energy wasting air-conditioners.
Noise often creates an “Arms Race”. Take your typical café. As customers come into the café, the noise levels increase. Coffee grinders and steam add to the background. The people in the café then can’t hear the music, so that gets turned up. People then talk louder so they can be heard. The hard concrete or wooden floor, concrete ceiling and hard walls reverberates, further amplifying the effect. And the cycle escalates! It is not uncommon to find cafés or pubs, with noise levels of >85 decibels. In a workshop, at that noise level, you would be required to wear earmuffs or earplugs to avoid hearing loss.
Similar issues exist in working environments. The modern open-plan workspace can offer benefits for teamworking and communication. However, the higher noise level can impact on productivity, contributes to a higher-stress workspace and now we realise, also damage your health.
Noise in the Mind
Noise also intrudes on our mental health. Some noise helps us to relax, cue: waves breaking on a beach; the slow rustling of leaves in a breeze; the song of birds or the trickling of a waterfall.
We understand the ability of music to reach deep into our emotions. As film-maker George Lucas was quoted “The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie.” While sound has these wonderful powers to impact our emotions and well-being, intrusive noise can easily have the opposite effect.
But counter to these positive impacts, we’ve all cringed at the sound of a finger scraping on a chalkboard or across a rough table. A sound so annoying it scratches your spine. In your daily environment, how many disruptive sounds are you exposed to? For most, the answer is many.
What is it about these noises that impacts our mental state. Mostly it is about disruption, nuisance, distraction, irritation. These impacts have a cumulative effect, raising our stress levels, or damaging our productivity, helping us lose focus on what we are doing or who we are communicating with. It doesn’t matter if we are working, resting or playing. Some of the health research has indicated that the noise doesn’t even have to bother you to impact your health.
And when you resolve to do something about noise, this can also amplify the stress levels. Complaining to a neighbour is never easy, and the response may be positive, but is just as likely to be negative or aggressive. If the neighbour is not helpful, then the next step can involve authorities and even courts. This entire process can contribute to ongoing stresses way beyond the noises themselves (which are probably still there by the way).
Noise is talking to you. Time to Listen.
What evidence is showing is that for most of the medical risks shown above, it is not necessary to have exposure to loud noise. Even medium levels of noise, for moderate periods can measurably impact out health.
As more and stronger evidence emerges proving noise is a threat to our health, it is time to take additional steps to address the problem. As individuals, we need to think about our environments and how much noise we individually create, and when. We also need to think about the noise we expose ourselves to. As a community we need to think about those around us, the standards, about planning and about what we want to accept when it comes to noise.
In part II, I will talk about the concrete steps YOU can take to reduce the impact on yourself. Fortunately, this also benefits those around you.
Noise is a problem that can often be managed or improved. Noise is the non-silent killer — we need to take action to stem its impact.
NoiseNet is a start-up helping people manage noise in their lives. We would love to hear from you.