The world is noisy. For some people, depending on where you live, your job, and other factors, it’s even louder. Add loud music festivals or even your summer workout playlist to the equation, and you have ready-made population study proposals for how noise will affect hearing over time.
Apple, which launched its health research initiatives in 2019 using health data collected from participating users’ iPhones and Apple Watches, published last month an update to its hearing research, which used data from about 130,000 participants between November 2019 and December 2022. The latest study update, in partnership with the University of Michigan, looked at sound exposure in the U.S. and Puerto Rico — especially noise above 70 decibels, the level that can increase the risk of hearing loss by passage of time.
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According to the study, about 1 in 3 adults are exposed to “excessive” noise, or about 77 million adults. The highest percentage of study participants living with excessive noise levels were in Puerto Rico, while the lowest percentage lived in Washington, DC.
Strictly in terms of numbers, states with large populations such as California, Texas, New York and Florida had more participants exposed to excessive noise.
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How too much noise affects health
When someone loses hearing from exposure to sound, it usually happens over a long period of time because the nerve cells in the inner ear are damaged. Over time and in tandem with aging, lifelong exposure to noise can affect one’s hearing ability.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a chart with examples of different decibel levels, typical things that would trigger them, and when hearing loss would become possible. As a general rule, the louder the noise (like an approaching subway, 100 decibels, according to the CDC) or the maximum volume of your headphones or radio (105-110 decibels), the faster the potential for hearing damage . The CDC notes that with repeated exposure to loud noises, the risk of hearing loss increases over time if you don’t use hearing protection or give your ears a break between those exposures.
Apart from hearing loss, noise can affect our health in other ways, including feeling irritated or annoyed by the continuous sound, which can lead to depression or anxiety. Noise pollution, particularly traffic noise, is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease, even when controlled for other factors that can harm heart health, including air pollution.
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The uneven impact of loud noise reflects other gaps in public health
Some people may find it harder to escape loud noise because of where their neighborhood is in relation to a noisy road or airport, or what they do at work. This can create an overlap with other types of pollution and inequity, which can have uneven impacts on health based on socioeconomic status and others.
“These demographic factors have already been shown to be associated with air pollution levels, and our study suggests the same may be true for noise pollution,” said Richard Neitzel, principal investigator of Apple’s hearing research and associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
“As we continue our research, we hope to use this data from the Apple Hearing Study to inform health policy and hearing health initiatives.”