By Daniel Fink, M.D.
Is your noise making me fat? That may seem like a silly question to ask, but there is strong scientific evidence that traffic noise causes obesity. More specifically, increased traffic noise–whether from highways, airplanes, or trains–is strongly correlated with central obesity. Central obesity (or “truncal obesity”) is in turn linked with increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac disease leading to increased mortality.
Why would noise cause obesity? The auditory system evolved from vibration sensing mechanisms in primitive organisms which were used to sense predators, or by predators to find food. Noise perception remains a major warning system, even in mammalian species. Except for fish, most animals above the phylum Insecta close their eyes when they sleep but cannot close their ears, except for some which swim or dig. Noise at levels not loud enough to cause hearing loss in humans interferes with sleep, causing a rise in stress hormone levels. These in turn alter carbohydrate and fat metabolism, leading to fat deposition. And that can cause diabetes and high blood pressure, which in turn cause heart disease.
A study published in 2015 showed a clear association between noise exposure and central obesity. Another study published that year showed that noise caused increased heart disease and death.
There is probably nothing specific about traffic noise that makes it more likely to cause health problems than any other source of noise, except, perhaps, the factor of unanticipated noise may be important. It’s just easier to study the effects of traffic noise on humans than asking thousands of people to use personal sound monitors for long periods of time and then collecting and analyzing those data. Noise is noise.
It’s obviously difficult to measure the non-auditory health impacts of everyday noise exposure–in the streets, in restaurants and stores, at sports events, at concerts–on an individual, but noise has powerful physiologic effects.
So as both noise levels and obesity levels rise in the United States, the answer to the question, “Is YOUR noise making ME fat?” may be “Yes!”
What can we do? For those living near highways, airports, or railroad tracks, double pane windows and wall and attic insulation may provide some protection. But the best approach to noise is to limit it at its source, which will require political pressure to get laws passed to require quiet, especially nighttime quiet.
After the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded 35 years ago (pdf), noise is largely a local government issue. So if you want change, you have to speak up for yourself. One easy step is to look at your local government’s website to see if noise is identified as a constituent issue. If not, contact your local government representative and ask to speak to him or her about noise problems in your neighborhood or around your workplace. In addition, an internet search should reveal whether your community has a group that is organized to fight noise in your town (click this link for a map of noise activist and quiet advocacy organizations). Find out if they are active and go to a meeting to see what they are doing. If politicians see that an issue is important to constituents, it is in their best interest to address that issue it they want to be re-elected. If they ignore it, they can be replaced. An active constituency ensures a responsive politician, at least on the local level.
Noise is omnipresent and insidious. Because it’s everywhere, people assume that it must be tolerated and cannot be regulated. But when air pollution became so noticeable and obviously unhealthy that it couldn’t be ignored, government responded with forceful legislation. As a result, our air is cleaner today than it was in 1970. America has gotten noisier and hearing loss in on the increase. As with air pollution, we need robust government action to regulate noise. If you care about your health and the health of your family, push back against noise, demand action, and join your neighbors to promote a peaceful, quiet, and healthy environment.
Dr. Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.