Quiet, Please!

Nighttime road work contributes to sound stress. Photo: Billie Grace Ward, via flickr
How reducing noise can improve your mental and physical health

By Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D.

Sound starts out as a physical phenomenon: audible pressure waves in the air are converted into nerve impulses as they travel from the ear to the brain. In the brain, sound takes on meaning, and when sound is determined to be unwanted, unpredictable and uncontrollable, it then becomes noise. But loud sounds, even when enjoyable, can harm the ear and lead to impaired hearing. One loud blast of sound near the ear may cause permanent damage, but it is the continuous exposure to loud sounds over time that reduces hearing ability. While hearing impairment is a common problem of aging, national studies have found growing hearing loss among younger people because of overexposure to loud music or vehicles.

Noise can also add to stress which, in turn, may raise blood pressure, increase the heart rate, or make our muscles contract. Sustained stress over time can lead to high blood pressure or insomnia. Scientific literature has found a link between exposure to noise and increased risk for cardiovascular and circulatory disorders. In addition, noise from neighbors, construction sites, or nearby bars that intrudes on our daily activities, especially in our homes, diminishes the quality of life. As the World Health Organization has stated, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

As anyone who lives in a big city can attest, the growing din in our community affects our well-being. In my position on the environmental non-profit organization GrowNYC, overseeing its noise activities, I am frequently called upon by New Yorkers who are impacted by noise. Some of the older callers let me know they are hearing impaired, but then add that they can still hear intrusive noises that are bothersome. Both the hearing-impaired and people with good hearing complain to me that it is difficult to dine in “loud” restaurants where conversation at the table is virtually impossible.

New Yorkers can take an active role in lessening the din in their lives. Diners can ask restaurant personnel to lower loud music, and owners can get information about acoustical treatments that can lessen the decibel levels in their establishments. Residents can let managing agents and landlords know they are entitled to quiet in their apartments under the “warranty of habitability” clause of leases. Local public officials and community board leaders should be enlisted in abating the noises in neighborhoods. Readers can go to www.growNYC.org/noise for more information on the hazards of noise and how to reduce the noise in their lives. If you hear something that is disturbing, then do something to correct the problem. Your health is at stake!

Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of the City University of New York, serves on the board of GrowNYC. She does research, writes and lectures on the adverse effects of noise on health. She is a co-author of “Why Noise Matters” (2011) and author of the children’s book “Listen to the Raindrops” (illustrated by Steven Parton).