Noise and Mental Health -- Is chronic noise more than just a nuisance?
David Prescott, PhD, Acadia Hospital
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Why Worry About Noise? In much of Maine we are thankful for our ability to step outside of our homes and hear almost nothing. The peace and quiet of the majority of Maine communities is a benefit of living here. But, for many people across the nation and the world, chronic noise is not only a nuisance but a significant hazard to mental and physical health.
The World Health Organization recently reported that over 1 million health years of life are lost each year due to ill health, disability, or early death due to traffic related noise. While most research has been done on the impact of noise that is difficult to control, like traffic or airplanes, there is mounting evidence that trying to reduce the amount of everyday noise in our lives can have important health benefits.
How much noise is too much? Noise is measured in weighted decibels. The recommended noise level in a bedroom to help with good sleep is no more than 30 decibels. In a classroom, the ideal level of noise for learning is less than 35 decibels. Standing next to a vacuum cleaner is usually rated at about 70 decibels. While studies of American cities are still not completed, recent research found that about 40% of people in Europe live in a place where traffic noises are at an average of 55 decibels.
Noise and Mental Health: The impact of chronic noise on mental health is not quite direct, but not hard to follow. Our bodies react to chronic high levels of noise with responses such as:
- Increased production of hormones that are released in response to stress
- Decreased sleep
- Increased blood pressure
Poor sleep and chronic stress response are clearly tied to increased risk for depression, anxiety disorders, and a variety of mental health disorders. Also, being in an environment with chronic stress, such as high noise levels, make it harder to recover from health and mental health problems. For example, preliminary research suggests that high noise levels in acute care hospitals is associated with slower progress in recovering from an illness.
Noise and Development in Children; Exposure to high levels of chronic noise appears to slow the cognitive and learning development of children. Naturalistic studies of children who live near airports shows a decline in reading levels and long term memory associated with chronic noise. Interestingly, a group of children who had chronic noise removed, due to relocation of airports, showed improvement in the same tests of reading and memory.
Are there any simple steps that can be taken to reduce the impact of noise? Obviously, people have limited ability to control things like where airports and roads are built. However, becoming aware of noise levels that you can control may have important health and mental health benefits. Some examples might be:
- Consider turning off televisions and stereos in your home that are on “all the time.”
- Be sure to reduce noise levels in the house when children, and adults, are sleeping.
- If you work at home or your children study at home, consider setting aside agreed upon times for quiet, when radios, movies, and television are turned off.
- Simply being aware of reducing your voice level may help, particularly if someone in your home is recovering from illness or mental illness.
For More Information:
American Psychological Association: www.apa.org/monitor
World Health Organization: www.euro.who