I notice a big difference in my sleep and in my overall sense of well-being whenever I sleep somewhere with a lot of city noise. Sirens, neighbors, traffic, that kind of thing. It turns out that it’s not just me: city noise can really affect your health and make you feel crummy. Extra noises can be distracting, inhibiting our abilities to learn and focus, and they can make you less productive, sleepier, and unwell.
With the exception of the car alarm going off down the street or the neighbor’s dog barking all day, noise isn’t really something we often think about—and that’s part of the trouble. Harvard Ph.D. candidate Erica Walker has been working to understand how city noise affects well-being. Walker is interested in finding out how noisy different neighborhoods are and measure those results against health problems like cardiovascular disease.
“Noise is insidious,” Walker has found. “It affects you acutely, but it’s also long term. This is something that people don’t really talk about, but something people really suffer from.” She has also discovered that low-frequency noises are the worst offenders—a train rolling by, an airplane in the distance, or the sound of an idling engine. These noises are often ignored in noise-health studies, but they look to be the real culprits of sleep problems because they’re more of a vibration than a sound.
“We shouldn’t just throw out components that we think [people] don’t hear, we should consider the whole spectrum,” Walker added. “We should ask the community what they’re bothered by. If you’re going into a community and you’re monitoring noise, you need to ask them, what’s bothering you? Then you can make connections between noise and health.”
Walker is currently making notes on every neighborhood in Boston and speaking to their residents. Her research is important not both in diagnosing the problems that come with city noise but also in getting people to talk about it and to recognize it for the challenge it is.
City noise can distract people from what they’re meant to be doing: for children, this means it’s more difficult to complete homework or school assignments, so they learn less. Teachers in noisy classrooms were shown to teach 11 percent less than teachers in quiet classrooms. Alarmingly, children assigned to classroom that faced elevated train tracks fell almost a year behind in school.
If you’re bothered by city noise, I recommend a good pair of noise-canceling headphones. Insulate your home if you can or put covers over the windows to help drown out unwanted noises.