Noise Is Killing Us

For those of us who live in the Greater Boston area, the noise that is all around us — the roar of jets from the flight paths over our heads, the constant thrum of traffic on our bridges and expressways, the deafening sound of those obnoxious leaf blowers and lawn mowers, the harshness of motorcycles on our roads and of power boats (and those obnoxious jet skis) on the water, and the blare of sirens by fire engine and police vehicles (just to name the most obvious ones) — is impossible to escape.

We always considered the constant noise to be a part of the background of our environment, the price we pay for living in the city. But the evidence is mounting that noise is much more than a mere annoyance — it is killing us in subtle, yet measurable ways.

Researchers have found that noise doesn’t merely affect our auditory senses (i.e., hurt our ears), but literally reverberates throughout our entire body. Noise causes a stress response in the brain that in turn triggers responses that snake their way along our cardiovascular and nervous systems.

The effects of noise are especially pernicious at nighttime because noise can interrupt a normal sleep pattern, thereby triggering a stress response even if the person does not recall being awakened.

Researchers at Mass. General who have analyzed the brain scans and health records of hundreds of patients report that those who live in areas with high levels of transportation noise are more likely to suffer from arterial inflammation and major cardiac events. Noise may even trigger heart attacks, and higher levels of aircraft noise have been tied to heart-related mortality.

It is estimated that 100 million Americans are subject to a level of noise that is harmful to our health. If the ill effects of noise are as bad as researchers say, it is not surprising that Americans’ life spans are shorter — even when taking into account our ongoing opioid epidemic, COVID, and high suicide rate — than in countries that are not as “developed” as ours.

And for those of us who try to take care of ourselves by eating well, exercising, etc., it is very depressing to realize that the noise that surrounds us cancels out our best efforts at living a longer and healthier life.

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