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Loud Noise: The Not-So-Silent Killer Is Back

The fading of the pandemic means the return of ear-piercing sounds and related health issues

spinner image photo illustration of a suburban neighborhood that includes noise hazards such as a lawnmower jackhammer motorcycle garbage truck and dog barking as well as others
Chris O’Riley

We lead noisy ... I SAID, WE LEAD NOISY LIVES! Loud sounds pound our eardrums every day: traffic, TV, earbuds, the phone, the neighbor's dog, the kids shooting fireworks even when it's not July 4. And let's not forget all the nights spent leaning against the speakers at Aerosmith concerts back in the ‘70s.

For the past 16 months or so, many of us have gotten a respite from noise as the world slowed in response to the pandemic. But as life slowly revs back up this summer, it's a good time to stop and consider just what we stand to lose from an increase in volume. Indeed, loud noise is more than just a threat to your hearing and your quality of life. New research suggests it can seriously damage your health.

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Decibel levels

  • Passenger jet: 106 dB* 
  • Kitchen blender: 88 dB 
  • Garbage truck: 100 dB 
  • Power mower: 90 dB 
  • Leaves rustling: 20dB 
  • Quiet conversation: 50dB 
  • Jackhammer: 100 dB 
  • Birds chirping: 44 dB 
  • Dog barking: 90 dB 
  • Motorcycle: 90 dB 

 *Jet noise from 1 mile away

Noise and disease

Daily noise exposure may figure significantly in your risk of severe stroke, according to a recent study in the journal Environmental ResearchResearchers found that living in a noisy area — like a city or next to a highway — increases your risk of severe stroke by 30 percent, while living in a quiet, green area can reduce it by up to 25 percent.

Here's how it works: An incessantly loud environment stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates stress response. The brain reacts by increasing blood pressure and levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol; both are known to cause a host of cardiovascular issues, including stroke, says Douglas M. Hildrew, M.D., medical director of the Yale Hearing and Balance Program. In fact, the American Heart Association warns of an increased risk of heart attack for those who are regularly exposed to excessive noise, the kind found near airports and highways.

Chronic stress is also a well-established contributor to deaths related to immune system suppression, diabetes, arterial plaque buildup (atherosclerosis), psychiatric illness and possibly cancer.

Noise and your brain

Exposure to noise slowly murders the critical hair cells within your cochlea that are key to the creation of sound in your brain (although one big blast of noise can cause instant damage as well). The resulting hearing loss increases your risk of cognitive decline, Hildrew says.

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"If I need hearing aids and I don't get them, I may withdraw from conversations because I find them challenging,” he adds.

That's not a small thing. People with hearing loss tend to isolate themselves socially out of frustration or embarrassment. As a result, they often don't experience sufficient mental stimulation or social interaction to keep sharp, increasing their risk of cognitive decline, Hildrew says. Now consider that nearly 25 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 experience disabling hearing loss, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. That percentage doubles for those over 75.

spinner image man plugging ears to stop the loud noise
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The pursuit of quiet

As a return to normal life brings with it a return to normal noise exposure, the question is, how loud is too loud? The line where ear damage begins is traditionally believed to be between 85 and 90 decibels (dB), says David Owen, author of Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World. That's about the level of loudness your ears absorb from a gas lawn mower. A blender, a blow-dryer and a noisy restaurant all straddle the threshold of safe listening at around 90 dB. If you're going to be exposed to this level of noise for extended periods, or anything louder for even a short time, you should wear some sort of ear protection.

Since most of us don't walk around with a decibel meter, Hildrew recommends simply taking stock of your anxiety level when surrounded by various levels of sound: If it stresses you out, turn it down or find a way to protect yourself. Here are some volume-control tips.

1. Shut car windows

Driving with the windows open may expose you to harmful levels of environmental noise. “Men are more likely to lose the hearing on the left side because they're more likely to drive with the driver's side window down,” Owen says.

2. Choose a quiet restaurant

SoundPrint, a free app (available for both iPhone and Android), allows users to measure sound-level readings at bars and restaurants and share them with fellow quiet seekers.

3. Fine-tune

If you're having trouble hearing and want to see how hearing aids might help you, try EarMachine, a free app funded by the National Institutes of Health, which turns your iPhone into a hearing device by amplifying frequencies you don't hear well and sending to your ears via your wired earphones.

4. Plug it out

Simple noise-blocking earplugs ($5 and up) are an inexpensive way to protect your hearing. Keep a pair in your pocket for when you encounter high volumes. A sampling of products to consider:

  • Etymotic High-Fidelity Earplugs: Christmas tree–shaped plugs reduce the overall level of sound but maintain almost the full sonic spectrum — unlike regular foam earplugs that disproportionately mute high-frequency sounds like birds chirping or the sounds of f, h, s or th in speech, Owen says.

  • Pluggerz: These silicone plugs block loud music or noise.

  • Hearos: Squeeze these foam plugs between your fingers and insert them into your ear canal, where they expand to provide protection for your hearing.

5. Cancel the noise

Active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones ($120 and up) contain microphones that listen to the ambient noise around you and then use built-in electronics to produce sound waves that cancel out that noise, so all you hear is what's coming from your headphones. (The noise-canceling feature allows you to play your entertainment device at lower levels; headphones of any kind can still cause damage if you crank up the volume.) Here are three ANC styles:

  • Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: These earbuds use a combination of active and passive noise-canceling (PNC) technology. The ANC cancels out unwanted noise, while the PNC creates a seal to block it.

  • Amazon Echo Buds: These sealed in-ear speakers use Bose noise-canceling technology and work hands-free with the Alexa app so you can simply ask your earbuds to stream music, play audiobooks, make calls or play white noise to remedy distractions.

  • Samsung Galaxy Buds Live: Wireless ergonomic buds with ANC technology can be controlled by your smartphone or adjusted by tapping the earbud to focus and amplify live sounds.

Have You Had a Baseline Hearing Test?

Everyone should have their hearing checked at age 60 to establish a baseline measurement, advises otolaryngologist Douglas M. Hildrew, M.D. “People don't come to see me until they're not healthy anymore,” he says. “They say, ‘My hearing's changed,’ and I have to figure out by how much."

If you're curious about your hearing but aren't quite ready to make a doctor's appointment, Hildrew recommends that you seek out one of several online assessments available; AARP members can take the National Hearing Test once a year, for free, by going to the site

Kimberly Rae Miller writes on health and wellness for a number of national publications.

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