Sometimes it feels as if there can be no such thing as too much noise: when you're dancing your brain out in a gigantic tent to your favorite band, for instance. But your instinct would be wrong, and even the world's biggest DJs would have to disagree. Excessive noise in an environment has pretty serious consequences for your health, and I'm not just talking about ringing ears (or tinnitus, to give it its technical name), or the feeling of vague deafness you get after yet another gig without proper ear protection.
It turns out that too much noise in your life can interfere with all kinds of things, from concentration (obvious) to stress hormone release (less obvious). So what counts as too much noise? The answer is actually kind of subjective, because the body tends to adapt to what it's experiencing, but the working definition is that too much noise over 85 decibels is definitely too much. Loudness isn't the only issue, though; it's also about how continual it is and when it happens in the day: the World Health Organization believes that over 30 percent of all Europeans are exposed to too much sound at night (over 35 decibels). And if you live in a big city like New York or LA, you can bet things aren't any better.
So what does too much noise really do to you, and how much do you need to put into that earplug investment anyway? Let's have a listen.
1. Hearing Loss
You know this one — but it's a pretty big concern. Exposure to too much loud noise over too long a period of time definitely dulls your hearing: noise-induced hearing loss, as it's called, is usually either caused by one short, sharp loud noise (something seriously loud, like a gunshot at 150 decibels), or more insidiously, by prolonged noise that's over 85 decibels for months or years. And it's all because of, surprisingly, hair cells.
The eardrum isn't actually the core of our hearing capacity. Our ability to hear and understand noise is a complex interaction between the sound waves and the cochlea, the ear membrane, and tiny hair cells within the inner ear. It's the hair cells that bend and cause messages to be sent to the brain to recognize the sound — and it's the death of the hair cells that produces hearing loss. Hair cells actually never grow back; once they're gone, they're gone for good, though stem cell research has started to focus on whether they can be regrown artificially. And without them, your hearing is harmed for life. Yeesh.
What You Can Do To Prevent It: Don't crank your headphones up to full volume, and always take earplugs if you're doing something continuously loud, like clubbing or going to a concert. The safety range for earphones attached to iPods, according to 2006 research, is no more than five minutes at 100 percent volume, and no more than a few hours at 70 percent. Over-the-ear noise canceling headphones are also a better bet than earbuds if you're looking to protect your hearing longterm.
2. Overproduction Of Stress Hormones
According to a report by the University of Pennsylvania, it's not just industrial or environmental noise (like jackhammers — one of which is outside my window at this very moment) that's the problem. It's also social noise: the impact of clubs, loud bars, or cranked-up headphones. And the combination of many different kinds of noise may result in a seriously stressed-out body.
We are, it seems, kind of a quiet species — or at least our bodies like it that way. If we're exposed to too much sound for too long, our bodies can interpret it as a stressor, and start to make us feel edgy and over-alert by producing stress hormones. The stress hormones particularly associated with too much noise are the catecholamines, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which raise the heart rate and release glucose into the body's bloodstream to enable it to fight off threats. Catecholamine levels go particularly haywire if you're kept up by noise in the night, because your body has natural "resting" alertness levels. Too much social, environmental, and industrial noise — now that's a fun cocktail — make the body think it may be under attack, and ramp itself up accordingly. Hello, New York City.
What You Can Do To Prevent It: Do your best to avoid seriously noisy situations, and always target the quiet parts of noisy areas or limit your exposure to a small amount of time. And yes, you are allowed to take noise-canceling headphones or earplugs around with you.
3. A Higher Risk Of Hypertension & Cardiovascular Disease
This is mostly related to the whole "stressing the body out" thing, but it's been independently verified as pretty comprehensively related to noise. The jury's still out on precisely how much blame can be given to stressful noise when it comes to making our hearts go bump in the night, but studies have shown a link between constant noise exposure and hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure. Why? Because the body's constantly in low-level "attack" mode, putting stress on the heart.
It's most dramatically observed during sleep. If you're being exposed to too much environmental noise at night, according to a 2007 study (called, catchily enough, "Noise Pollution: A Modern Plague"), your heart rate goes up, your breathing rate changes, you're at higher risk of arrhythmia, and your body thrashes around more. The key thing to note here is that your body can only adapt so much. Studies have found that you can get used to short, sharp bursts of sound in sleep-mode, but not prolonged exposure to noise: your heart just never settles down, and that leads to cardiovascular weakness and the possibility of future disease.
What You Can Do To Prevent It: Try to wear earplugs while sleeping, particularly if you don't live in a quiet area. Minimize the amount of ambient noise in your bedroom, get insulation to stop sounds traveling through the walls, and if all else fails, sleep with a pillow over your head. (Not recommended.)
4. Disturbed Sleep
The cumulative effects of stress hormones and general heart racing are going to disturb your sleep from the inside out, but what about the disruption by environmental noise to your sleep patterns in general? It turns out that encountering too many bumps in the night is, unsurprisingly, not exactly a trip to deep REM sleep-town — but what may shock you is the amount of damage this sleep impairment can do to your health. If you're getting fatigued regularly, your attention span and general mood are going to plummet. You'll also likely visit the doctor more often and spend more money on medication, according to the World Health Organization.
We don't function well without deep, reparative sleep. Our "sleep architecture" — the general shape and structure of our sleeping patterns — gets seriously messed up if we're woken abruptly, and that can lead to some pretty problematic consequences. A December 2014 round-up of all the available science looked at the impact of environmental noise disturbances on sleep patterns, and concluded that the disturbed sleep it creates impacts on our metabolisms, mental health, annoyance levels, fatigue, energy levels, and ability to focus. It actually puts disrupted rest from environmental noise in the same category as serious sleep disorders, like insomnia. Its recommendation for noise while you sleep? Avoid it at all costs.
What You Can Do To Avoid It: Keep track of your mood and fatigue levels, and try to tie them to particular disturbances in the night if you can. Earplugs are your friend; if you're flying (where the noise of the engines can be particularly disruptive to sleep), some people argue that noise-canceling in-ear headphones are actually your best bet for getting some shut-eye. White noise machines can be used at very low volume to avoid disruption, but remember — they still count as noise.
5. Imapaired Brain Functioning
Our comprehension when things are noisy is understandably lessened, but weirdly enough, it's after the noise stops that we really get upset and unable to concentrate. According to the scientists who discovered this effect, our brains get upset about the lack of control we have over the situation, and are worried that the noise will start up again. And, unfortunately, it also looks as if repeated noise exposure also affects our short-term memory: Scientific American reports that cortisol, another stress hormone that floods the body in background-noise situations, is associated with short-term memory loss, as well as impairment in our ability to do complex planning or reasoning tasks. Noise during tests can really sucker-punch your chances for an A.
It's even more prominent in children. Chronic noise exposure in kids has been associated with learning problems and cognitive impairment. In a famous study on environmental noise, like traffic and airplanes, and kids' functioning, children got worse at reading comprehension and memory tasks the longer they were exposed to too much noise around them. They were also more inclined to be irritable. And it didn't matter if the tasks they were doing required noise or not: they were disrupted in everything from reading quietly to doing verbal presentations. Too much noise as a kid, it seems, might hijack your academic career from the beginning.
What You Can Do To Prevent It: Look for better noise insulation in your house and working areas. If you're in an open office, according to a study published in the New Yorker, you're more likely to be exposed to stress-inducing levels of noise — so get yourself some hearing protection during work, or try for a private office. Look for housing away from flight paths and work in rooms furthest away from roads. I know, easier said than done. (If it makes you feel any better, no less than Queen Elizabeth II's home at Windsor Castle is so close to the flight path that she can identify plane models just by sound.)
Images: Anthony Delanoix/Unsplash; Giphy