It’s almost impossible to find complete peace and quiet. Even if you live deep in the countryside away from aircraft routes, traffic and building work, your home is probably filled with the buzz of computers and other modern appliances. In some locations, there are even claims of mysterious low-pitched noises with no known origin. For example, residents of Bristol in the west of England recently complained of a “hum”, which followed reports of a similar sound in the city in the 1970s.
Such sounds aren’t just annoying. There is increasing evidence that long-term environmental noise above a certain level can have a negative influence on your health. These effects can be physical, mental and possibly even disrupt children’s learning.
Recent research shows that road traffic and aircraft noise increase the risk of high blood pressure, especially noise exposure at night. A study of aircraft noise around London’s Heathrow airport found that high levels of aircraft noise was associated with increased risks of hospital admission and death for stroke, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease in the nearby area.
Another large study that looked at aircraft noise exposure over a much longer time period of 15 years found that deaths from heart attacks increased when the noise was louder and endured over a longer period of time. The latest estimates suggest a ten decibel average increase in aircraft noise exposure was related to an increase in high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes of between 7% and 17%.
Your emotional response to noise pollution can also be significant, so much so that it has a specific name: noise annoyance. This describes the negative feelings noise can create such as disturbance, irritation, dissatisfaction and nuisance, as well as a feeling of having one’s privacy invaded. Annoyance can vary widely between different people, however
As well as the type and volume of the sound, other factors include how much it interferes with your activities, the fear you feel associated with the source of the noise, your coping mechanisms and even your belief about whether the noise is preventable. For example, you’re likely to feel more annoyance to aircraft flying overhead if you feel the airport is taking no measures to regulate the noise. However, the impact of annoyance on long-term health isn’t clear and the evidence actually suggests mental ill-health may increase the risk of annoyance rather than the other way round.
The health effects of quieter, background noises and “hums” such as the one heard in Bristol are also less clear, although they can certainly cause discomfort and annoyance. Similarly, a recent review of very-high frequency ultrasound (which cannot be consciously heard) concluded that the general population is much more exposed to ultrasound than in the past. It recommended that reports of symptoms such as nausea, headaches and dizziness that some people have linked to ultrasound should be further investigated.
Another important area of noise research is the effects on children’s learning. About 20 studies have found effects of either aircraft or road traffic noise on children’s reading abilities and long-term memory. One found that aircraft noise was associated with poorer reading comprehension and memory, after taking both the children’s social position and the road traffic noise into account. In the UK, reading age was delayed by up to two months for a five decibel average increase in aircraft noise exposure.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/22 New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
2/22 Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment 'helps patients walk again'
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
3/22 Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
4/22 Cancer risk 'increased' by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
5/22 Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
6/22 Rat-bite fever
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
7/22 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
8/22 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
9/22 Fat loss from pancreas 'can reverse' effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
10/22 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
11/22 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
12/22 Sugar tax
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
13/22 Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
14/22 Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
15/22 Health apps approved by NHS 'may put users at risk of identity theft'
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
16/22 A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
17/22 Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
18/22 Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications. Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug. Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
19/22 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
20/22 The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
21/22 Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
22/22 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
Now that we know noise can be harmful, the difficult question is why? Aircraft and traffic noise is inevitably tied to the production of air pollution but researchers usually take this into account when studying the problem. And there are probably separate reasons why noise and air pollution can impact our health. The effects of particles from air pollution are largely to do with inflammation, whereas noise exposure increases stress levels leading to physiological arousal, such as raised heart rate and blood pressure.
This can lead to increases in established cardiovascular disease risk factors such as blood pressure, blood glucose concentrations, blood fats and even central obesity. And in turn, this can produce sustained elevation of blood pressure and atherosclerosis (narrowing of arteries due to fat deposits) and eventually in some people to serious events such as heart attacks and strokes.
Because people’s bodies still respond to noise during sleep (and it wakes you up), one suggested pathway to ill-health is through repeated sleep disturbance. Being exposed to sound while you’re asleep can particularly affect breathing, body movements, heart rate, and when you wake up. And you’re more likely to be affected if you’re elderly or a child, or you work shifts or have poor health. Research has also found that self-reported sleep disturbance is worse when it comes from aircraft noise than road traffic.
The impact of noise on children’s learning is less well understood. It may be as simple as aircraft noise interfering with teachers communicating with pupils, or it may be that pupils focus their attention so narrowly in noisy conditions that they exclude useful speech as well as unwanted noise. But we do know that it’s not just due to the fact that people living around airports are sometimes poorer because when researchers have taken this into account they’ve found their results still apply.
What is clear is that noise pollution does affect a large number of people and is a significant risk to their health. Because of this, we need to think about interventions to reduce noise at source by masking or screening it using barriers or sound insulation, or even better by designing our society to be less noisy in the first place.