Scientists report that damage from noise exposure extends far beyond the ears

Mathias Basner
Mathias Basner

LONDON—Hearing scientists and hearing healthcare providers have known for decades that exposure to loud noise, especially over an extended period, often causes severe and irreversible hearing loss. However, a report by an international team of researchers reveals that the damage done by excessive noise extends far beyond hearing loss and related auditory problems, such as tinnitus.

In an article, “Auditory and Non-Auditory Effects of Noise on Health,” published last week in The Lancet, the seven authors summarized the conclusions they reached after conducting a comprehensive review of current research on the effects of noise on a wide variety of health indicators.

The scientists, members of the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN), wrote, “Evidence of the non-auditory effects of environmental noise exposure on public health is growing. Observational and experimental studies have shown that noise exposure leads to annoyance, disturbs sleep and causes daytime sleepiness, affects patient outcomes and staff performance in hospitals, increases the occurrence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and impairs cognitive performance in schoolchildren.”

They reported that the effect of long-term exposure to noise on the cardiovascular system may lead to hypertension, ischemic heart diseases, and stroke.

The health dangers of noise are especially serious in view of how many people are exposed to excessive noise. The authors wrote: “Noise is pervasive in everyday life and can cause both auditory and non-auditory health effects. Noise-induced hearing loss remains highly prevalent in occupational settings, and is increasingly caused by social noise exposure (e.g., through personal music players).”



In an interview with Penn Medicine News Mathias Basner, MD, PhD, the lead author of the article in The Lancet, said, “In our 24/7 society, noise is pervasive and the availability of quiet places is decreasing. We need to better understand how this constant exposure to noise is impacting our overall health.”

Basner, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, continued, “From earbuds blasting music during subway commutes to the constant drone of traffic heard by those who live or work near congested highways to the beeping of monitors that makes up the soundtrack heard by hospital patients and staff, what we hear all day impacts many parts of our bodies.”

In the interview, Basner said that in the U.S. alone approximately 22 million workers are exposed to hazardous noise levels at work, and, annually, an estimated $242 million is spent on compensation for hearing loss disability.



Along with Basner, the experts on noise and public health who wrote the Lancet article were Wolfgang Babisch, PhD, of the German Department of Environmental; Adrian Davis, PhD, an audiologist with Public Health England and the Ear Institute at University College, London; Mark Brink, PhD, of the D-MTEC Public and Organizational Health in Switzerland; Charlotte Clark, PhD, of the Centre for Psychiatry, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University; Sabine Janssen, PhD, of the Department of Urban Environment and Safety in the Netherlands; and Stephen Stansfeld, PhD, of the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University.

In assessing current evidence on the diverse impacts of noise on health, the authors concentrated on studies published in the past five years in the areas of otolaryngology, cardiovascular medicine, sleep medicine, psychology, and hospital medicine.

The authors hope that their findings will stimulate educational campaigns worldwide to promote both noise-avoiding and noise-reducing behaviors, and thus mitigate negative health consequences.

They wrote, “In this review, we stress the importance of adequate noise prevention and mitigation strategies for public health. Efforts to reduce noise exposure will eventually be rewarded by lower amounts of annoyance, improved learning environments for children, improved sleep, lower incidence of cardiovascular disease, and, in the case of noise exposure in hospitals, improved patient outcomes and shorter hospital stays.”