You awake with a start. A siren screeches past your window. Maybe you pause momentarily to wonder where the siren might be headed, who the ambulance races to save. Maybe you fall back in the pillows and slip back into sleep. But depending on where you grew up, and what part of the city you live in now, you might not have even heard the siren. You might have slept right through it.
It turns out, though, that noise, whether you’re asleep or awake, can really hurt your heart and your brain. According to recent research, a constant dose of noise can even take years off your life. Last year, the World Health Organization studied traffic-related noises and monitored populations in European cities. They found that in these cities street noises deducted a total of more than one million healthy years of life per year, and also led to a greater incidence of heart attacks and learning disabilities.
“Wait—are you saying that if I keep living on a main road, I might get a heart attack?” Well, probably not right now, but maybe sometime in the future. Noise, traffic-related or not, initiates your “fight-or-flight” response. Let’s review. The fight-or-flight response is your reaction to threat. Your adrenaline surges. Your pupils dilate. Your blood vessels constrict. And your heart pumps faster.
Over the years, continual activation of fight-or-flight stresses your cardiovascular system, making it more susceptible to problems.
It’s not just sudden noises, though. It’s also annoying noises. As early as 1978, Dr. Neil Weinstein suspected that noise on university and college residences could hinder academic ability.
Weinstein surveyed 155 first-year students living in their campus residences. He interviewed them once at the beginning of the year and once at the end. Not surprisingly, he found that students fell into two groups: noise-sensitive and non-noise-sensitive. Members of the noise-sensitive group tended to perform lower on tests. They also tended to want more privacy and felt less comfortable in social situations. They needed more time to be alone and more quiet study time.
“Hmmm… so should I move off my noisy street (or residence)?” If you live in a noisy environment, you might already have guessed that the solution need not be that drastic.
A.J. Jacobs, an American author and journalist, spent a whole year following every health tip he could find. He walked, played with a pet, wore a helmet on the street, and applied sunscreen by the shot glass. At the end of his health experiment Jacobs explained that he had to be selective in what advice he wanted to continue to apply simply, because, well, there just wasn’t enough time to do it all.
What Jacobs took away from his experiment was an understanding of the stress that noise exposure can cause—not just street noise, but all noise. Jacobs chose to stick with two main behaviours; one of them was wearing headphones or earplugs.
Regulars of the UTM library’s silent zone could probably have told you that earplugs block out distracting whispers. But Jacobs says wearing earplugs has greatly improved his quality of life in general. It turns out silence decreases stress—stress on the cardiovascular system, stress on the brain, and stress in general.