The Truth About Noise

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Noise can cause hyperacusis and tinnitus, but can it also be bad for your heart?

New York Times Health blogger, Nicholas Bakalar, posted a piece on a report by British researchers that suggested that “[c]ontinual exposure to traffic noise may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.”   The study, published in The European Heart Journal, noted that, as compared with average noise levels below 55 decibels, “levels above 60 decibels were associated with higher rates of hospital admissions for stroke — 5 percent higher among people 25 to 74 and about 9 percent higher among those over 75.  All-cause mortality was 4 percent higher for people in noisy neighborhoods.”

As Bakalar notes, 60 decibels is not especially loud as it “is much quieter than most urban environments and many indoor public places like popular restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and sports arenas.”  The  researchers suggest that the cumulative effect of constant noise over years could be significant.

If you have a sound meter on your smart phone, load it up when you are at a restaurant, theater, or gym and look at the decibel level.  My guess is that if most people did this just to get a sense of the normal sound levels they are continually exposed to, they would be stunned.

Research into the affect of noise on health is at the nascent stage, so more attention and funding has to be directed to this emerging and important field of study.  One hopes that once there is some consensus regarding the ill effects of noise on health, that businesses and political bodies will have no choice but to address it.  After all, cities and suburbs are not getting any quieter.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.

What if we could control what we hear?

Nuheara, a tech startup, has developed “innovative augmented ‘Hearables’ (ear buds) that allow people to control their hearing experience with the help of a smartphone app.

Sounds like disruptive technology, no?  But Nuheara is not alone.  Doppler Labs had a very sucessful Kickstart campaign last month featuring their app controlled earbuds, raising 253% of their goal.

The interest in this technology shows that many people would like to control what they can (and cannot) hear.  Good.  But it’s unclear whether Nuheara’s Hearables or  Doppler Labs’ Here Active Listening System will limit the sound output delivered directly into users’ ears.  I routinely see people on the subway wearing earbuds where the residual sound leaking from their earbuds is so loud that I can hear what they are listening to.  If I can hear it, they must be destroying their hearing.  Not today, of course, but years from now when it will be too late to stop the damage.  The delayed damage, coupled with the knowledge that the EPA determined over 40 years ago that a 24-hour exposure level of 70 decibels as the level of environmental noise which will prevent any measurable hearing loss over a lifetime,  makes government’s and industry’s failure to limit decibel levels on headphones and earbuds insidious.

I look forward to the reviews of Hearables and Here Active LIstening System.  Having a relatively mild case of hyperacusis, a common trigger of discomfort for me is the competing layers of noise in restaurants.  If the earbuds work as advertised and actively suppress background noise, I may be able to enjoy the conversation at my table without the discomfort caused by the cacophony around me.  That would be nirvana.

Ultimately, I hope that the release of this technology helps to fuel a discussion about noise pollution, in general, as well as the effect of headphones and earbuds on ear health.

An auspicious start?

Or is that an ironic start?  I posted my first blog entry last evening and shortly after rising this a.m. this is what I saw and heard on the street below my apartment [Note: check your sound levels before pressing play] :


Nice.  Looks like they will be here all day.  So I’ll be off to find a nice quiet cafe/temporary office for the afternoon.

Why this site?

A couple of years ago I began to notice that I was quickly losing any ability to tolerate noise, particularly in restaurants.  I had read that as we age we lose the ability to filter out extraneous sound, but what I was experiencing didn’t appear to be an ordinary reaction to noise.  Many of my friends, like me, are middle-aged, and while noisy places might annoy them, they didn’t experience the irritability–or, occasionally, the pain–that I did.  If I commented about a place being noisy my friends might agree, but they rarely commented about the sound level unless I pointed out that the space was particularly loud.  For the last few years I felt edgy and uncomfortable in loud spaces and would actively look for restaurants that were relatively quiet or had quieter corners.  One Sunday last year I met up with friends for brunch at an exceptionally noisy restaurant.  I became so uncomfortable and irritable about the competing layers of noise that I knew I had to do something.  First, I had to find out what was wrong.

I ran a few internet searches and came up with two possible answers: (1) hyper sensitive hearing and (2) hyperacusis.  I knew that I had acute hearing from childhood–I routinely could hear things that others could not–so hyper sensitive hearing seemed like the logical answer.  That said, although I was always sensitive to sound I didn’t used to find it irritating or sometimes painful.  So I scheduled an appointment to see an otolaryngologist (ears, nose, and throat doctor or ENT) and have a hearing test.  On the day of my appointment I got my answer: hyperacusis.

Hyperacusis, essentially, is an oversensitivity to certain frequencies and ranges of environmental sound that most people find to be normal.  Severe hyperacusis is rare, but there is a “lesser version” that affects musicians.  I was an amateur musician in high school and in my early 20s, and the symptoms I presented suggested that I had the lesser form.  It turns out that the irritability I experienced in loud places, particularly restaurants, is typical.  In fact, after my doctor told me that I had hyperacusis he added, “no, you aren’t neurotic.”  I know why he said that.  I had written off occasional ear pain and general grumpiness when in loud spaces, assuming that it was due to sensitive hearing, my general disdain for gratuitous noise, and, frankly, age.  But I was wrong.  And when I joined my friends for that brunch at the exceptionally loud restaurant, I knew that there was something more going on and that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal.

One reason why I didn’t immediately suspect that I had a hearing issue was due to luck: unlike a majority of people diagnosed with hyperacusis, I don’t have tinnitus.  My case is relatively mild, which is a very good thing as there is limited treatment and, from what I’ve read, no cure.  Rather, the only thing I can do is protect my hearing by limiting my exposure to damaging noise.  My doctor advised me not to attend concerts where there are electric musical instruments, and he prescribed musicians’ ear plugs that reduce noise levels by 25 decibels.  Taking affirmative action is particularly important as I live and work in New York City.

And so this blog has been created to catalog places in New York City that can be enjoyed quietly and without discomfort.  My hope is that those of us who have hyperacusis or hyper sensitive hearing or who simply want to find a quiet place in the city to read, think, or have a conversation can share our finds and maybe raise some awareness about the daily assault on everyone’s ears.  To that end, keep an eye on the map on the right, as it will be updated over time with public spaces, restaurants, bars, and retail spaces that are pockets of quiet in the city that never sleeps…or whispers.