Our Noisy World

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

A.J. Jacobs recently became aware of just how loud our world is — and how this secondhand smoke of our ears harms us:

What’s the problem with this high-decibel world? “The most obvious one is hearing loss,” Dr. Bronzaft says. Some 26 million adults are walking around with noise-induced hearing loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Noise also has a surprisingly potent effect on our stress level, cardiovascular system and concentration. In Paleo times, a loud noise signaled a threat, so noise triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure.

A University of British Columbia review of 6,300 people who work in noisy jobs found that they suffer two to three times more heart problems than those who work in quiet settings. A former World Health Organization official estimates (with a bit of alarmism) that noise-induced strain may cause 45,000 deadly heart attacks a year.

Noise also wreaks havoc on the brain. Dr. Bronzaft conducted a landmark study at a public school in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, published in the journal Environment and Behavior in 1975. Some of the classrooms directly faced an elevated subway track. Every five minutes the students heard a train rattle by. Other classrooms were tucked on the opposite side of the building, away from the noise. The difference? By the sixth grade, the kids on the noisy side were nearly a year behind. Since then, her conclusions about the effects of noise on concentration have been backed up by a pile of other studies, on both students and adults.

After meeting Dr. Bronzaft, I pledged to turn down the volume on my own life. I started in my kids’ room. I dug out all of their beeping, yammering electronic toys and spent a half-hour putting masking tape over the plastic speakers

“What are you doing, Daddy?” asked my son Zane. “Just fixing the broken toys,” I half-lied.

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