A study published in the journal Science used seismic readings to show that as the lockdown began in 2020, the noise level around the world decreased notably. In another study, University of Michigan environmental health scientists used the data from volunteer Apple Watch users. “People’s exposure to environmental noise dropped nearly in half during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic,” they confirmed.
While many people commented that the sudden silence was eerie—“like a post-apocalyptic movie,” some opined—many others also observed that the quiet was peaceful. And our ears were surely thanking us for the lower decibel level, as well.
Noise harms our health in many ways
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 26 million people in the U.S. have hearing loss that is directly related to noise exposure. “Loud noises can injure the delicate sensory cells—known as hair cells—in the inner ear,” said NIH experts. “These cells allow us to detect sounds. But when hair cells are damaged and then destroyed by too much noise, they don’t grow back. So hearing is permanently harmed.”
The effect can be immediate. “Noise-related hearing loss can arise from extremely loud bursts of sound, such as gunshots or explosions, which can rupture the eardrum or damage the bones in the middle ear,” they said. But they also noted, “Most noise-related hearing problems develop slowly over time, with ongoing exposure to loud sounds.”
Hearing loss increases the risk of falls and leads to social isolation, anxiety, and depression. And it is hard on the brain, making it difficult to retain memories as we struggle to hear. “The strain of decoding sounds over the years may overwhelm the brains of people with hearing loss, leaving them more vulnerable to dementia,” says Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Dr. Frank Lin.
Damage to our hearing is only the beginning. Noise can disturb our sleep. It is distracting and stressful. The American Heart Association says this noise-related stress raises the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and, as Dr. Lin noted, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Tips for lowering our exposure to noise
As our country is coming back to normal, we’ll gradually experience more noise. Here are things we can do:
Reduce your personal exposure to very loud sounds. Some of these noisy situations are obvious—gunfire, fireworks, construction equipment, power tools, noisy yard tools, and of course, sitting near the front at rock concerts. Noises that are somewhat less loud might be safe over brief periods but can damage hearing over time. This might be sitting in traffic, a barking dog, a hairdryer, loud music at your fitness class, or noise at a sports event
Use hearing protection if you are exposed to these types of noises. See those professionals in loud situations? The crew at that rock concert, the construction worker with the jackhammer, the instructor at the gun range—they are most likely wearing earplugs, protective earmuffs, or other hearing protectors. You should too!
If you use earbuds or a headset to listen to media, keep the volume at a safe level. Experts say that these days, many people are exposed to dangerously high decibels while listening to their devices. During the pandemic and even in normal times, that is the top source of excessive noise exposure for some people. Turn down the volume, and consider using noise-canceling headphones.
Sound-proof your space. Wall padding, rugs, even built-in bookcases can make a room quieter and reduce noise from outdoors. A fan or white noise machine can also help. Seal gaps in doors and around electrical outlets. Consult your local home improvement shop for more ideas.
Seek out quiet places. Especially if you’re a city dweller, it might be hard to find silent spots. Take a trip to the park. If museums are open, seek tranquility there. And when it’s safe to go to a restaurant again, choose one where you can hear your companions—and hear yourself think!
Create portable quiet. Noise-canceling headphones can cut down on noise. Just be sure not to use them when you need hearing to keep you—when driving, walking, or cycling, or any time you need to be able to hear approaching vehicles or other hazards.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your hearing care professional. Talk to your doctor about screenings you should have, and report any symptoms of hearing problems.