Guest blog post by Stephanie Gutzmer, Au.D., E-RYT
Nearly 25% of U.S. adults ages 20 to 69 years have some level of noise-induced hearing loss. However, in our modern world, exposing your ears to unsafe levels of noise may not be your choice anymore. Noise pollution is all around us. However, you can take steps to reduce your risk. But before you learn how to reduce your exposure to noise pollution, it’s important to understand how the ear works.
How Your Ears Work
Sound is transmitted from a source by creating waves, or vibrations in the air. Sound waves reach your ear and are funneled to your ear canal where it vibrates your eardrum (tympanic membrane).
As your eardrum vibrates, the bones (ossicles) of your middle ear also vibrate. The vibrating ossicles send sounds to your inner ear. Your inner ear has two main organs: the vestibular system and cochlea. The vestibular system is involved in balance and spatial orientation. Whereas, the cochlea is involved in changing sound waves from vibrations into something your brain understands.
Your cochlea is located in the bone of your skull just behind your ear and is filled with fluid. As that fluid vibrates from the lever mechanism of your outer and middle ear, it creates waves within the fluid. When the fluid wave peaks it activates hair cells, which send a neural signal to your brain.
These neural signals then travel from your cochlea to your brain through the auditory nerve. The neural signals transmitted from your cochlea is how your brain recognizes and understands sound.
What Is Noise
Noise and sound are technically the same things: vibrations of air particles from a sound source. The difference is the quality of the sound. Noise is sound that is unclear or unwanted.
The intensity, or how loud sounds are, is measured in decibels (dB). Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so small differences between sound volume can have an enormous impact on your ears. Sounds above 85 dB can cause hearing loss. However, many sounds over 50dB can be considered a nuisance and detrimental to overall health.
Everyday sounds become undesirable when it disrupts your normal activities. Noise can be seen as just an un-pleasantry, but it actually is something that can hurt you. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated noise is a major threat to human well-being!
Negative Health Effects of Noise
Today’s world is full of sound. Finding a moment of actual quiet can be a feat! Most of the time there is a constant drone of background noise from fans, television, cars, or other ambient sounds.
Environmental noise is on the rise over the past decades. Environmental noise, also known as noise pollution, is considered elevated sound levels that may lead to adverse effects in humans or other living organisms. These can happen outside as a result of transportation and lawn maintenance or inside in an open office setting, home, or factory floor.
Chronic exposure to noise pollution at 50 decibels (equal to average conversational volume) or higher reduces focus and concentration, increases stress, and raises your risk of cardiovascular disease significantly. About 65% of the population is exposed to ambient sound levels above 55 dB, while about 17% are exposed to even higher levels, at 65 dB and above.
Here are some of the negative effects of daily exposure to noise for long periods:
– Cognitive Ability
Daily noise exposure impairs attention, learning, and memory. Noise can be more distracting if the task is considered difficult or complex. This effect is especially concerning for school children because it can interfere with comprehension and learning.
– Cardiovascular Disease
The auditory system in your brain is constantly monitoring incoming information and alerting other parts of your brain for something you might need to be aware of. For example, if you’re at dinner with friends, you may not be consciously aware of what some people at the other end of the table are saying until you hear your name. Instantly, you are now aware and actively listening.
This part of your brain is essential for survival because it lets you know when danger is present and activates the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response prepares your body to run or defend yourself if needed.
This response does create stress on your body and can be triggered by loud environmental sounds. And repeated stress leads to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
– Sleep Disturbance
Difficulty sleeping is easy to recognize when there is a lot of noise, but you may not realize the major impact it has on your health and quality of life. A good nights rest is essential for good health and daily productivity. Chronic sleep disturbances have been shown to poorly affect memory, creativity, focus, reflects, and judgment.
Tinnitus is often found with hearing loss and can be considered a symptom of hearing loss. However, in some instances, tinnitus can be present without measurable hearing impairment. And because of the annoyance and handicap, it can cause those who suffer from it, tinnitus is included here.
Tinnitus is the result of an internal sound that is not due to an outside source. Commonly it is a buzzing or ringing type sound, but many different sounds are recognized as tinnitus. Tinnitus is not always bothersome, but approximately 50% of those who have tinnitus are bothered by it to some extent.
Tinnitus can cause sleep disturbance, cognitive effects, anxiety, psychological distress, depression, communication problems, frustration, irritability, tension, inability to work, reduced efficiency and limited social engagement.
WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not just the absence of disease. So, annoyance caused by environmental noise should be considered an environmental health burden. Noise above 55dB is considered unpleasant and can affect your quality of life.
When Is Loud Too Loud?
Here’s a simple trick to know if you are in an area that it too loud: If you have to shout to someone who is arm’s length away to communicate, it’s too loud!
However, it’s not just about how loud the sound is, but also how long you are exposed to it. Sounds above 85dB are dangerous to your ears. And for every volume increase of 3dB, the “safe” exposure time is cut in half – little volume changes can be incredibly damaging!
How You Can Reduce Noise Exposure?
The detrimental effects of noise depend on how loud the sound is, and how long you are exposed to it. Removing yourself from noisy situations is the best way to protect your ears. However if you cannot avoid it, use proper hearing protection.
Here are 5 simple ways to reduce noise pollution and protect your hearing:
- Turn down the volume: Decreasing the volume of television and music is an easy way to limit your noise exposure. A safe level for music players is typically around mid-point of the volume range. For televisions, it’s not so easy to estimate. However, not going higher than 1/3 up the volume range would be good to aim for – again, if you have to shout it’s too loud!
- Walk away from the loud noise: The intensity of noise reduces the further you are from the sound source. If you have no control over the volume of the noise, removing yourself from the area can protect your ears.
- Take breaks from loud sounds: Limiting the amount of time you are in a noisy environment will reduce the damage done to your ears.
- Avoid loud, noisy activities and places: Some events and places you know will be loud, such as music concerts or some sporting events. Not attending these events removes the potential for damaging exposure.
- Use hearing protection: If you are attending a loud event or are using loud equipment and tools, the use of hearing protection is recommended. Hearing protection comes in the form of earplugs or earmuffs. Hearing protection reduces the level of sound entering your ear, but do not block sounds completely. To protect your hearing, hearing protection must fit and be used properly. Consider talking with an audiologist to learn how to use hearing protection properly and have custom ear protection made if you are routinely exposed to loud sounds.
Repeated, daily exposure to loud sounds and noise pollution can damage your ears. With enough damage, hearing loss occurs. Unfortunately, there is no cure for hearing loss, only treatment options. Hearing aids are hugely beneficial for those with hearing loss, but it is not as good as normal hearing. Taking steps to protect your hearing now is significantly better than investing in hearing aids tomorrow.