Shhh… Listen. Do you hear that? You don’t hear anything? THAT is what I’m talking about. Actually, it is rarely totally silent, so really, I love what I call the sound of quiet. I love to be on the beach early, before many people arrive or even in the evening, when all you hear is the sounds of the waves coming to the shore. I love being on a hike with no one around and hearing the rustle of the wind in the leaves, an occasional scampering of a creature that makes it’s home nearby, or the flapping of wings overhead. So you might be thinking that what I enjoy are actually the sounds of nature. Yes, but I also am content to be sitting in my kitchen with a hot beverage and hearing the quiet purr of the fridge or even the whisper of the dishwasher as it washes away the remnants of a meal enjoyed by my family. These are just some of the sounds of quiet which I enjoy.
When did the idea for this article poke me? As I was preparing to teach an outdoor class, one of my students arrived early and we greeted each other and smiled and VROOM! VROOM! …and then the sounds of a leaf blower wiped the warm smile from her face and we both had to raise the level of our voices to speak to each other. Mainly, we both expressed that we wished the blower hadn’t disrupted the quiet.
More than just being annoying, exposure to loud noise can cause hearing loss. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition to the affecting your quality of life by threatening your hearing, noise can affect your health in other ways. A 2019 study in the journal Environmental Research found that daily noise exposure may significantly increase your risk of severe stroke. Living in a noisy area of a city could increase that risk by 30 percent, while being in a more quiet area with greenspace could reduce that risk up to 25 percent.
Here’s how it works: An incessantly loud environment stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates stress response. The brain reacts by increasing blood pressure and levels of a stress-related hormone called cortisol; both are known to cause a host of cardiovascular issues, including stroke, says Douglas M. Hildrew, M.D., medical director of the Yale Hearing and Balance Program. In fact, the American Heart Association warns of an increased risk of heart attack for those who are regularly exposed to excessive noise, the kind found near airports and highways. (“Loud Noise: The Not-So-Silent Killer Is Back”, Kimberly Rae Miller, AARP, July 8, 2021)
So when is loud too loud? It is generally believed that damage to the hearing can happen at about 90 decibels. How can you know how loud that is? Well, just like most things nowadays, there is an app for that. But to give you an idea without having to watch an app everywhere you go, take a look at this chart:
What to do now, especially if you are in a situation where noise is unavoidable? Carry earplugs with you. There are different types which vary in how much noise is blocked. They are very inexpensive and can even be carried in your pocket so should you find yourself in a noisy situation, you have them handy. Another option is noise canceling headphones. Just be sure that you keep whatever you are listening to at a lower level so you avoid causing damage to your hearing. Also, while using them, be aware of your surroundings. Another gem of technology, as mentioned before, you can load an app to your smartphone to measure the sound level where you are and limit your time, or avoid altogether, being in noisy places. Instead, seek out a serene spot and enjoy the sound of quiet.