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By Brian Vaszily | Bob Seger, Jeff Beck, Sting, Eric Clapton, Peter Frampton and Bob Dylan all have something in common. Their years of hard rocking have left a mark on more than just their fans -- after years of exposure to loud noise, they all now have hearing impairments.
But these hard rockers are not alone. Exposure to excessive noise is, in fact, the most common cause of hearing loss and the most common work-related disease.
Some 10 million Americans already have permanently damaged hearing from loud noise. Another 30 million are at risk right now in their homes, workplace and recreational settings, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
Surprisingly, though, hearing loss is only one health risk that arises from loud noise exposure. There are several other, serious, risks as well.
According to Eddie Chandler, a stress management specialist, " ... Sounds can literally make you sick. Noise pollution can increase your stress levels and create severe tension in your daily life. It can increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure and even result in insomnia."
Acoustic Neuroma Tumor
A study to be published in the February 2006 Journal of Epidemiology found that several years of repeated exposure to loud noise increases the risk of developing a non-cancerous tumor that could cause hearing loss.
People exposed to loud noise were 1.5 times more likely to develop the tumor, called acoustic neuroma, than people who weren't exposed to loud noise on a regular basis.
The slow-growing tumor gradually presses the cranial nerve that senses sound and helps with balance. Symptoms, which typically become noticeable at age 50 or older, include hearing loss and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
Noise Increases Heart Attack Risk
Prolonged exposure to high noise levels also increases the risk of a heart attack, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal.
The study involved 4,000 people who had been admitted to Berlin hospitals from 1998 to 2001. When it came to environmental noise (heavy traffic, machines like lawn mowers, yelling kids and barking dogs), it was found that:
Men who were exposed for a prolonged length of time had a 50 percent higher risk of heart attack than those not exposed.
Women who had been exposed to noise had a three times higher risk.
"We feel that, if you have a higher and longer exposure to noise, either environmental or workplace noise, you are at a higher risk for a heart attack," said lead investigator Dr. Stefan Willich.
Risk of High Blood Pressure Goes Up
Another study by University of Michigan researchers, published in the Archives of Environmental Health, found that working in a loud environment raises blood pressure levels.
They outfitted workers at a Midwest auto-assembly plant with monitors to take blood pressure readings and record noise levels throughout the day.
It was found that while blood pressure was affected by overall noise exposure, peaks in noise affected heart rate. Also, an increase of 10 decibels in average noise exposure resulted in a systolic blood pressure increase of 2 millimeters.
To put things in perspective, reducing systolic blood pressure by 6 millimeters (for the long-term) has been associated with a 35 percent to 40 percent reduction in strokes and a 20 percent to 25 percent drop in coronary disease.
Where is All This Loud Noise Coming From?
Noise from all over -- work, traffic, music, TVs, industry, people and more -- exists like never before. As a result, much of the population is now experiencing related hearing loss and other problems.
"There's no question that baby boomers have been exposed to different sources of noise than any generation before them," says Dr. James F. Battey Jr., director of NIDCD. "We're certainly seeing people in their 40s and 50s who notice their hearing is not as good as it used to be."
Younger people are also at risk of future problems, as exposure to noise via earbuds or headphones attached to MP3 players and other media devices is common.
Many people may not even realize that they are listening to music at harmful levels. An April 2005 study by National Acoustics Laboratories in Australia, published in the International Journal of Audiology, found that 25 percent of people wearing headphones who were stopped on city streets were listening at damaging volumes.
"Safe" Noise Levels
A safe average of noise for a 24-hour day is 70 dB, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Any noise that reaches 85 dB or more can damage your hearing, but even a softer noise can harm your health if it keeps you up at night (a 45-dB noise is loud enough to keep the average person awake) or irritates you.
To put things into perspective, here's a list of some common noise measurements:
Quiet home: 20 dB
Normal talking: 40 dB
Ringing telephone: 60 dB
Air conditioner: 75 dB
Heavy traffic: 90 dB
Subway train, honking horns, jack hammers: About 100 dB
Typical nightclub: 110 dB
Ears register pain: 120 dB
Loud music, jet take-off: About 120 dB
To keep noise to a minimum in your home, or to protect your hearing if you must be in a noisy environment, try these tips from the previous Sixwise.com article "Noise Pollution: How Bad is it, How Bad Could it Get, What are the Effects?":
Wear earplugs in noisy places
Turn down the volume on radios, personal headsets and TVs
Try muting your TV during the commercials, or leaving it off all together and reading a book instead
Sound-treat your home by putting heavy curtains on windows, rugs on the floors and sealing all air leaks
Consider adding acoustical tile to your ceilings and walls
Put on some light music, like the Pure Relaxation CD, to buffer outside noise that you can't control
Use sound-blocking headphones to listen to music/TV without the disturbance of outside noises, and without disturbing those around you
Look for quieter home appliances
Take a drive in a rural area to escape city noise for a day
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