Excess noise wreaks havoc on hearing, cognition, and more
Noise pollution—classified as any undesirable, disturbing, constant, or excessive sound—is an invisible threat to our health.
It can range from your spouse clinking dishes in the kitchen…all the way to construction or cars honking on the street. (Not to mention all those nasty gas-powered blowers and mowers that appear to surround us all summer long—and in some places, all year.)
If it seems like noise is increasing all around you…and becoming more of an annoyance…that’s because it is. At least, for many.
A new survey reports that after pandemic lockdowns, more people are struggling with the distractions of loud noises in daily life.
Some of this is due to an actual increase in the types of noises around us. But it’s also in part to us coming out of quieter lockdown environments—and then being re-exposed to those “pre-pandemic” sounds, making them feel excessive.
Either can lead to some serious, chronic health issues.
For instance, studies found an association between noise pollution from transportation sources and a heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
And a new study shows that exposure to traffic and train noise may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by a shocking 27 percent.
The message behind these findings is clear: It’s more important now than ever to protect yourself from excess noise.
Of course, you could channel your inner Thoreau and move into the woods to “live deliberately.” But if the silence of Walden Pond isn’t in your future, there are other steps you can take to add some quiet to your life.
Plus, these steps will help protect your health—including your hearing—no matter how noisy your environment.
So, in a moment, I’ll share my top tips to reduce noise pollution and boost your health for years to come.
But first, let’s take a closer look at some of the shocking health risks of excess, unwanted noise…
The link between COVID-19 and noise
In a new survey conducted earlier this year, involving just over two thousand adult Americans, researchers analyzed the link between COVID-19 and noise.1
Results showed that about four in 10 people have become more sensitive to loud music and conversations since early 2020, when pandemic lockdowns began. That sensitivity can lead to health issues.
In fact, more than half of the survey respondents (54 percent) said loud noises give them a headache. And not just occasional pain either—we’re talking about a whopping six headaches a week.
So what does the pandemic have to do with all of this? Well, scientists think that people became used to quieter environments during lockdowns. We weren’t out and about in crowded, noisy offices, restaurants, or other gathering places.
Living in relative silence can cause the brain to readjust to quiet. So, when people did finally venture outside their homes, they had heightened sensitivity to loud noises.
Fortunately, that sensitivity seems to be temporary for most. And 75 percent of survey respondents said that overall, they have a strong sense of hearing and took good care of their ears.
That’s good news in light of the new study I mentioned earlier…
The link between noise and dementia
Between 2014 and 2017, Danish researchers analyzed data on noise and dementia involving nearly 2 million people ages 60 and older.2
(Denmark has an almost unique situation in terms of their population’s health data. Everybody in the country has a health registration number that tracks them throughout their lifetimes. The practice was started back in 1940—meaning almost the entire population participates in the health database.)
The researchers found that during the study period, over 100,000 people were diagnosed with dementia—including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and Parkinson’s disease.
The researchers then tracked the participants’ exposure to road traffic and railway noise. After accounting for other factors related to the residents and their neighborhoods, the researchers found that a 10-year average exposure to these particular noises resulted in a 27 percent higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers cited several possible reasons for this increased risk.
First, noise can cause stress. That means more stress hormones like cortisol coursing through the body. This can create more oxidative stress, inflammation, and alterations to the immune system—boosting the risk of disease and affecting cognition in the brain.
Not to mention, exposure to noise during the night can interrupt sleep. And it’s been well documented that sleep disturbances can lead to chronic disease, including dementia.
Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones can help
What can you do about all of this noise pollution?
Well, you can start with earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
The survey found that 60 percent of respondents were in favor of wearing earplugs to help with their increased sensitivity to noises. (Some just didn’t feel entirely comfortable wearing them if the earplugs were noticeable.)
Nonetheless, 70 percent of those surveyed said they use earplugs to help them fall asleep at night, and about 50 percent said they use them once per day.
Plus, finding headphones that are specifically designed to reduce background noises can help you limit noise pollution without being completely cut off from what’s going on around you.
I also recommend paying close attention to the noises that bother you, especially damaging and disturbing noises. Then you can wear earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones in those specific circumstances.
And if gas-powered lawnmowers or blowers are disrupting your quiet time, we discussed some solutions in the March 2020 issue of Insiders’ Cures.
In general, though, I suggest leading by example. Use a push mower or electric mower and an old-fashioned rake instead. Then, encourage your neighbors to do the same.
If you belong to a homeowners’ association, see if there’s anything that can be done about switching your neighborhood’s lawn and garden practices to more sustainable methods. For instance, encourage a “leave the leaves” policy.
Of course, there are also personal lifestyle changes you can make to protect your hearing in a noisy world…
Three ways to preserve your hearing
There’s plenty of evidence showing that just three simple lifestyle changes can improve hearing—no matter how much noise pollution you have to deal with.
Here’s what I recommend.
1.) Eat a Mediterranean-type diet. Recently, researchers analyzed data from the huge Nurses’ Health Study II Conservation of Hearing Study (CHEARS). The median age of the women who participated in the study was 59.3
Among the women who ate a Mediterranean or other type of healthy diet—full of fresh, whole foods like organic produce, full-fat dairy, grass-fed and -finished meat, wild-caught fish and seafood, and more—the researchers found:
- Mid-range hearing loss was almost 30 percent less frequent compared with women who ate less-healthy diets
- High-frequency hearing loss was up to 25 percent less prevalent
The researchers also noted that prior studies found higher intake of the following nutrients was particularly beneficial for hearing:
- Carotenoids, found in carrots, squash, citrus, and other yellow-orange fruits and vegetables
- Folate (B vitamin), found in leafy green vegetables, legumes, and meats
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and other seafood
Of course, all of these foods and nutrients are a part of the Mediterranean diet.
2.) Ditch the pain pills. Research shows certain pain relievers can increase your risk of hearing loss. In fact, a recent study showed that even supposedly innocuous over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen, and aspirin can affect hearing.4
The study involved data from nearly 56,000 women, ages 44 to 69, who were participating in the Nurses’ Health Study. Researchers found that women who took ibuprofen twice daily for at least six years were 10 percent more likely to have hearing loss than women who took the same amount of ibuprofen for one year or less. And women who took Tylenol® had a 9 percent decrease in hearing.
Overall, researchers determined that 16 percent of the study participants’ hearing loss could be attributed to regular painkiller usage. They also noted that these results are similar to a study they did in men—which linked Tylenol®, ibuprofen, and aspirin to hearing loss.
All in all, researchers think painkillers can affect hearing by interfering with blood supply to the inner ear and damaging the tiny hairs of the inner ear.
Just imagine how much you could preserve your hearing if you rarely—or never—took drug painkillers and turned to natural solutions instead!
3.) Get on the move. I mentioned earlier that researchers are analyzing how hearing (as well as vision and other sensory losses) affects dementia, cognitive decline, and other disorders of the brain. But I haven’t yet mentioned that some of these studies are done while participants are sitting or lying down (for example, while performing brain imaging using MRI).
And that’s important, because the way the brain processes sensory input differs depending on whether your head and body are unnaturally still, or whether you’re walking around.
In animal studies, more body movement leads to more sensory input into the brain. So it may very well be that, in humans, movement is associated with better sensory output like vision and hearing.
Plus, as I often report, moderate daily exercise is vital for your health. I always recommend 20 minutes a day of moderate physical activity like walking, hiking, gardening, or simple housework, for a total of 140 to 150 minutes per week.
So, getting out and enjoying the sounds of Nature, especially during the summer months (see page 1), may very well help preserve your hearing—naturally.
For more information on how to keep your hearing sharp well into your golden years, check out my Insider’s Ultimate Guide to Outsmarting “Old Age.”
This comprehensive online learning protocol offers dozens of simple, common-sense strategies for staying vibrant, youthful, and HEALTHY well into your 70s, 80s—and beyond.
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SIDEBAR: Three nutrients that can improve your hearing
Studies show that free radicals in the inner ear are a key factor in hearing loss. So, antioxidant vitamins like A and C can play an important role in prevention and treatment.
It’s also thought that magnesium helps restore blood flow to the hearing apparatus of the ear following damage by excessive noise. So it makes sense that a recent study found you can get the best effects by supplementing with these three nutrients.5
Researchers analyzed nutrient intakes and hearing loss in nearly 2,600 men and women, ages 20 to 69. They found that those who consumed more A, C, and magnesium had better hearing levels at both normal speech ranges and high-frequency ranges of sound.
Plus, the impact of all three nutrients acting together was stronger than the individual effects of each of the nutrients acting alone.
I recommend taking 250 mg of vitamin C twice a day, along with 400 mg of magnesium citrate once a day, together with a balanced diet.
I DON’T recommend supplementing with vitamin A, though. Instead, eat plenty of yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, which contain high amounts of carotenoids. Your body naturally and safely converts the carotenoids into vitamin A.
2“Residential exposure to transportation noise in Denmark and incidence of dementia: national cohort study.” BMJ 2021;374:n1954.
3“Prospective Study of Dietary Patterns and Hearing Threshold Decline.” Am J Epidemiol. 2019 Oct 14. pii: kwz223.
4“Duration of Analgesic Use and Risk of Hearing Loss in Women.” Am J Epidemiol. Volume 185, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 40–47.
5”Antioxidant vitamins and magnesium and the risk of hearing loss in the US general population. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jan;99(1):148-55.