Public health

How noise affects our brains

Image credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Everyone acquires information by different means. Some people talk to friends, some people do an internet search, some read newspapers or magazines, and these days many listen to podcasts.

I am too impatient to listen to podcasts–I can read much faster than anyone can talk–and I have hyperacusis, so I don’t listen to podcasts on my smartphone while walking around. I prefer to obtain information by reading.

But from time to time I make an exception, and this wonderful podcast is one of those exceptions.

On his “This Is Your Brain” podcast, Dr. Phil Steig interviews our friend Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, MSc, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Behavioral Regulation and Health Section. Dr. Basner is one of the world’s experts on the effects of noise on sleep and human health, and in this podcast he shares his knowledge about the effects of noise on hearing and the brain.

I listened on my computer. It’s only 19 minutes long, and well worth your time.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

NYC residents form task force against noise

Photo credit: Susan Sermoneta licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Concerned about the rise in noise in Inwood and Washington Heights, and supported by the largest number of noise-related complaints filed this year to 311 by the Manhattan community board that encompasses these neighborhoods, a group of residents formed a task force to address the noise in their community, e.g. street noises, residential noises, loud fireworks, and noisy vehicles. These two groups, named WAHI and Inwood for Respectful Decibel Levels, at their press conference, called on city agencies, elected public officials and their Community Board 12 members to support them in their efforts.

Over forty years ago, I had conducted study on the impact of elevated train noise on children’s classroom learning at their school in Inwood and found that the reading scores of children attending classes exposed to the train noise were significantly lower than children on the quiet side of the building. The results of this study were published in an academic journal but also shared with the community residents and their public officials. Working with the community and their elected officials, we were able to get the Transit Authority to lessen the noise on the tracks and the Board of Education to place sound absorbing materials in the noisy classrooms. A study following these two abatements found that children on both sides of the building were now reading at the same level.

Thus, it was not surprising that the Inwood/Washington Heights group would ask for my assistance to combat the noise they are now experiencing in their neighborhood. The fact that the community had played a role in lessening the noises at a district school earlier has given them confidence as they move forward to reduce the noise levels in their community today. The community also knows that today there is far more research demonstrating that noise is harmful to both our mental and physical health.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Noise and air pollution may be preventable causes of dementia

Photo credit: Elina Krima from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Noise and air pollution may be preventable causes of dementia. This new study from the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, reported by Med Page Today, discusses risk factors contributing to dementia. Other than rare genetic conditions, most cases of dementia have multifactorial causation. This makes prevention difficult because multiple risk factors must be addressed.

In general, a healthier lifestyle, including not smoking, eating a Mediterranean style diet, daily exercise, and other similar behaviors, have been shown to reduce or delay the onset of dementia. The new study found that risk factors contributing to dementia include hearing loss, social isolation, depression, and air pollution. These factors have now also been added to the Lancet Commission’s list of key modifiable risk factors for dementia.

Although the study doesn’t mention noise explicitly, noise causes hearing loss. Hearing loss in turn is associated, likely causally, with social isolation. People who can’t understand what others are saying tend to avoid social interaction because it’s too stressful or too embarrassing not to understand what others are saying. Social isolation in turn leads to depression.

With regard to hearing loss, researchers think the loss of auditory input caused by hearing loss also causes changes in the brain that contribute to the development of dementia. Previous studies led by researchers from Johns Hopkins have shown that hearing impairment in people 45-65 years old is related to a progressive loss of nerve cells in brain structures and reduced microstructural integrity that may indicate early Alzheimer disease.

The precise mechanisms by which air pollution contributes to dementia are unclear, but there are strong correlations between levels of pollutants and dementia. Much if not most of urban air pollution comes from particulate matter emitted by internal combustion engines. These are also a major cause of urban noise.

Reducing noise will prevent hearing loss and its consequences. And if noise from vehicles and other engines is reduced, air pollution will also be reduced.

As we have been saying for some years now, a quieter world will be a healthier world for all.

And, one hopes, it will also be a world with less dementia.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Dementia isn’t inevitable, and neither is hearing loss

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This new study from the Alzheimer’s Cohorts Consortium, published on an open access basis in the medical journal Neurology, reports that dementia rates appear to be on the decline in Europe and North America. Analyzing results from seven different research studies, the Consortium found that the incidence of dementia declined 13% per decade in the last 40 years, with a confidence interval of 7-19% per decade. The decline was more pronounced in men than in women.

It is difficult to find the cause for the decline, but the researchers think it is due to a focus on treating cardiovascular risk factors, including reductions in smoking, better blood pressure control, and the use of antithrombotic medication. The article states, “[w]hile none of these has been specifically intended to halt cognitive decline, decades of cardiovascular risk management have likely had substantial effects on brain health, supported by reduction of small-vessel disease on brain imaging in more recent years.“

Why am I writing about a decline in dementia in a blog about noise issues?

Is it because research shows that hearing loss is a possible contributing factor to the development of dementia? No, although that statement is accurate.

The reason is that dementia used to be thought of as an inevitable part of aging, but that’s not true. Many cases of dementia have a vascular cause, and can be prevented by treating cardiovascular risk factors.

Similarly, hearing loss is thought to be part of normal aging, as shown by the use of the terms “age-related hearing loss” and “presbycusis”.

I presented a paper at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zurich in 2017, reviewing literature that showed that hearing loss was not an inevitable part of aging but largely represented noise-induced hearing loss. A recent research paper from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary confirms that conclusion using ear tissue from post-mortem specimens.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: If a noise sounds too loud, it is too loud.

If you protect your hearing–by avoiding loud noise and using hearing protection when you can’t–you should be able to hear well when you get old. And maybe you’ll reduce your chance of developing dementia, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Noise returns to New York City

Photo credit: Chris Schippers from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

When the pandemic hit New York City in full force in late March and then worked its way into April and May, city residents began to speak of a positive result of the lockdown—the city sounded quieter. There were far fewer construction sounds, car honks, and gatherings of people on corners. Instead of overhead jet blasts, people in Queens could hear birdsong. But the increased ambulance sirens were painful reminders that illness had befallen this city and cities around the world.

It is now August and the quiet has passed, according to this New York Magazine article by Justin Davidson. Davidson writes that New York City is getting loud again, and he welcomes the return of intrusive sounds because they indicate that people are now going back to work and construction and repairs of buildings are no longer on hold. Davidson believes the quiet that hovered over the city during lockdown wasn’t really pleasurable. The evening streets lacked sounds of laughter, music from nearby restaurants, and even disagreements between people passing by, Davidson writes, while acknowledging that there were loud sounds at 7:00 p.m. celebrating the wonderful hospital workers tending to the sick.

Now Davidson finds himself bothered by nearby generators and its pulsations, which he says are “nudging my heartbeat to accelerate, like an IV drip of bad news.” His article cites research that demonstrates that such noise can affect mental and physical well-being, and notes, citing Emily Thompson’s “The Soundscape of Modernity,” that noise was one of the outcomes of urbanization. Yet, he found that when he visited a rural area, he encountered a number of noises in that environment as well.

This article also presents the opinion of critic Kate Wagner, which appeared in The Atlantic, who believes responses to sound speak to our social and political views in that fights over noise may be fights over “power and control.” Newcomers to certain quieter communities may advocate for more night life in the area while others moving into the city from the suburbs want a quieter town. Wagner, according to Davidson, believes that attempts to “shush” a city amounts to the “imposition of suburban values on an urban context.”

Davidson concludes his article by aching for the return of the sounds that characterized New York City before the pandemic. Then, he says, we will know that the city has “healed.”

While I, too, want to hear the wonderful sounds of the city again—children laughing, baseball fans shouting, and sounds of crowds leaving theaters and waiting for autographs of their favorite actors—I also believe that we should continue to advocate for the lessening of the din, e.g. lower construction tool sounds, less car honking, and the like.

A less noisy New York City will still be an exciting, vibrant city and a healthier one as well.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Noise complaints on the rise in NYC

Photo credit: Dan Nguyen licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

New York City, the city that has long been known to be noisy, is even noisier, according to an article by Shaye Weaver. Weaver writes that since February of this year, noise complaints in the city have increased “an astonishing 279 percent.” Firework noise was the overwhelming complaint in June, but complaints about loud music and parties led the list overall. The Bronx had the most complaints, with Staten Island registering the fewest.

Weaver states that “2020 has been a year like no other.” The pandemic has indeed changed the city and the lives of the residents in this city as well as people worldwide, in many ways, and 2020 will be known from now on as the “Year of the Pandemic.”

Weaver’s article doesn’t mention how the New York agencies that deal with noise complaints, mainly the Department of Environmental Protection and the police department, have been responding to the 311 noise complaint calls that have been directed to them. As someone who hears from New Yorkers who have not had their noise complaints resolved, I can say that I have had increased calls about noise in communities. My callers have reported to me that loud parties are being held near their homes and apartment buildings and there has been no interest from police or public officials to address their complaints. I have also been hearing from individuals who are organizing groups in their areas to give them a stronger voice when they approach public officials and community boards, and I have offered advice and asked to be kept informed about the activities to lessen the din.

I thank Weaver for her timely article and hope that she would do a follow-up focusing on the agencies responsible for addressing noise to ask how they are dealing with this large increase in noise complaints. We have laws on the books that have been written to curtail noise but unless they are enforced, they have little, if any, value.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Age-related hearing loss is almost certainly noise induced

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Hearing loss in old age is often called age-related hearing loss or presbycusis. This implies that hearing loss is part of normal aging, just like the need for bifocals called presbyopia. This article in the Society for Neuroscience’s journal reports that what is commonly called age-related hearing loss is really hair cell loss, indicative of auditory damage caused by noise

That was my conclusion based on a literature review, presented at the 12th Congress of the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise in Zurich in 2017.

Another recent report, this time in The Conversation, discusses research in fruit flies that may shed light on what the author calls age-related hearing loss. I don’t know how much noise fruit flies are exposed to–laboratory facilities are not quiet–but I suspect that the effects of whatever molecular changes occur in human ears with aging are compounded by cumulative noise exposure over one’s lifetime

Our ears are like our eye and our knees–we only have two of each. We don’t stare into the sun. We wear sunglasses when outdoors in bright light. In fact, sun exposure causes cataracts. We try not to injure our knees, although these can be surgically replaced.

And we need to protect our ears so they last us a lifetime.

Avoiding noise-induced hearing loss is simple: avoid exposure to loud noise, and if one can’t avoid that, use hearing protection.

Because if a noise sounds too loud, it is too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Headphone use causes hearing loss

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from the Sydney Morning Herald discusses headphone use causing hearing loss. It uses a term I hadn’t heard before–“headphone culture”–to describe the ubiquitous use of personal audio systems to provide a continuous soundtrack for daily life. There is mounting evidence that noise exposure in everyday life is loud enough to cause hearing loss in a majority of urban dwellers, and that exposure is exacerbated by using headphones or earbuds to listen to music or podcasts for hours a day.

The only quibble I have with the article is that it cites the occupational noise exposure levels of 80 or 85 decibels as being the safe sound threshold. This just isn’t true. Noise exposure levels that don’t even protect all exposed workers from noise-induced hearing loss certainly aren’t safe for the public!

The problem with listening to a personal audio device using headphones or earbuds is that to overcome ambient noise so one can hear what one is listening to, as when walking down the street or riding a bus or subway to work, the volume has to be turned up to dangerously loud levels.

For parents, the problem with children using headphones so they can listen to music or watch a video without disturbing others is that the parents can’t monitor the sound level or what their children are listening to.

The article discusses safer headphones with a volume limit, but my conclusion is that listening to music or podcasts or audiobooks using headphones or earbuds is as bad for the ears as smoking is for the lungs and heart.

Most volume limiting headphones use the occupational 85 decibel recommended exposure level as the volume limit and that simply won’t prevent hearing loss.

There is no safe cigarette, and headphones or earbuds with a volume limit may be safer than those without a volume limit, but they are certainly not safe.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

 

Early signs of hearing damage seen in young concert goers

Photo credit: Thibault Trillet from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report in The Conversation, a UK website, discusses research showing that young adults who regularly attend loud clubs and rock concerts have evidence of hearing loss. The hearing loss found falls into the “hidden hearing loss” category, so-called because it is not detected by standard hearing tests (“pure tone audiometry”), but only by techniques currently used only in research. These tests found subtle hearing loss and decreases in auditory signals sent to the brain. There were equal amounts of damage in musicians and non-musicians alike. It looks like all the young adults had too much noise exposure.

Hidden hearing loss is now thought to be the cause of the “speech in noise” problem, where middle-aged and older adults have difficulty following one conversation among many in a noisy environment. That’s a complex task for the ear and the brain, requiring lots of auditory information to be processed centrally. When the ear and brain are damaged, that doesn’t happen.

The only quibble I have with The Conversation’s report is that the authors make the common mistake of citing occupational noise exposure levels when talking about noise exposure in the public. Occupational noise exposure limits don’t protect workers from noise-induced hearing loss, and the UK’s 85 decibel exposure limit cited is certainly not safe for hearing.

The only noise exposure level that prevents hearing loss is a daily average of 70 decibels, which is much less noise than most urban dwellers around the world get every day.

Prevention of noise-induced hearing loss–hidden or not–is simple: avoid loud noise exposure and use hearing protection if you can’t.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

How loud noise affects your health

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This article, online and in the print version of Prevention magazine, discusses noise pollution and how loud noise can affect health. Loud noise causes auditory problems–hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis–but also has less known non-auditory health effects as well. These include sleep disturbances, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, leading to increased mortality.

It’s relatively easy to protect one’s ears from auditory damage: avoid loud noise or use hearing protection if one can’t.

Protecting populations from the non-auditory health effects of noise will take concerted political effort to get legislation requiring quieter planes, vehicles, and trains passed and enforced.

But I believe if enough people complain to enough elected officials, a quieter world is possible.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is 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. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.