July 28, 2012
Noise Pollution – A Health Hazard for Seniors
Noise in and of itself can be a nuisance for everyone, but studies show that noise has a direct and immediate effect on a person’s health. Seniors are especially at risk because the human body reacts to noise with a “fight or flight” response. Physiological changes occur in the nervous, hormonal and vascular systems, resulting in significant long-lasting consequences. Exposure to constant and excessive levels of noise can cause health problems such as stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, depression and lost productivity.
What is noise pollution?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines noise pollution as “unwanted or disturbing sound,” explaining that “sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping or conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life. The annoyance can have major consequences, primarily to one’s overall health.”
Even the ancient Romans realized the importance of addressing noise pollution. Chariots were banned from the streets at night because their wheels made too much noise on the cobblestone and would disrupt citizens’ sleep. In medieval Europe, horses and horse-drawn carriages were forbidden on the streets at night, and straw was laid over the stone to reduce noise.
The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise. However, the aging process is made more difficult because of exposure to persistent and escalating sources of the sounds of everyday life.
Specific adverse health effects of noise
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the following categories of adverse health effects of noise pollution on humans.
Hearing impairment: Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the most common and often-discussed health effect. Noise-induced hearing impairment may be accompanied by abnormal loudness perception, distortion and tinnitus, which is inflammation of the ear. Tinnitus may be temporary or may become permanent after prolonged exposure. The eventual results of hearing loss are loneliness, depression, impaired speech discrimination, impaired school and job performance, limited job opportunities and a sense of isolation.
Interference with spoken communication: Noise pollution interferes with the ability to comprehend normal speech and may lead to a number of personal disabilities, handicaps and behavioral changes. These include problems with concentration, fatigue, uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, irritation, misunderstandings, decreased working capacity, disturbed interpersonal relationships and stress reactions. Some of these effects may lead to increased accidents, disruption of communication and impaired academic or work performance.
Sleep disturbances: Uninterrupted sleep is known to be a prerequisite for good physiologic and mental functioning in healthy individuals. Environmental noise is one of the major causes of disturbed sleep. The primary sleep disturbances are difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings, waking too early and alterations in sleep stages and depth, especially a reduction in REM sleep. When sleep disruption becomes chronic, the results are mood changes, fatigue, depression, decrease in quality of performance and other long-term effects on health and well-being.
Cardiovascular disturbances: The nervous system can be temporarily, and even permanently, affected by noise. Noise acts as a biologic stressor, triggering a negative response to the cardiovascular system and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Disturbances in mental health: Noise can accelerate and intensify the development of latent mental disorders; however, it is not a direct cause of mental illness. Adverse mental health issues resulting from noise exposure include anxiety, stress, nervousness, nausea, headaches, emotional instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, changes in mood, increase in social conflicts, neurosis, hysteria and psychosis. The elderly and those with underlying depression may be particularly vulnerable to these effects because they may lack adequate coping mechanisms.
Impaired task performance: Noise pollution impairs task performance at school and at work, increases errors, and decreases motivation. Reading attention, problem solving and memory are most strongly affected by noise. Two types of memory deficits have been identified under experimental conditions: recall of subject content and recall of incidental details. Deficits in performance can lead to errors and accidents, both of which have health and economic consequences.
Senior-specific effects of noise pollution
Vulnerable groups include patients with various diseases, patients in hospitals or those who are rehabilitating from injury or disease, the blind and the hearing impaired. The senior population often falls into these at-risk groups. The long-term adverse social and physical effects that seniors experience from prolonged exposure to noise can result in decreased overall health, mood and quality of life, and ultimately, prolonged exposure increases the rates of accidents, injuries and death.
The European Heart Journal published a Danish study that looked at the correlation between traffic noise and stroke risk for people 65 and over. In the study, the researchers examined data for over 51,000 Danish residents living in the city. Noise levels were calculated for each person’s home. Researchers also looked at other factors for the study such as diet, pollution and smoking history. The findings were that there is a direct link between level of noise and likelihood of stroke.
Protecting seniors from noise
To combat the influence that noise has on a senior, whether during sleep or even during the day, noise-cancelling devices such as earplugs may help. Use of a fan or white noise machine may help block noise from traffic, neighbors and daily sounds. The senior or the caregiver can work with a healthcare provider to determine the solutions that work best for the senior and can monitor health issues due to stress.
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