Noisy airport traffic linked to higher heart attack, stroke risk

As much as you may hate hearing honking traffic or rumbling trains breaking up the silence while you drift off to sleep, can such irritating noises do serious damage to your health? That’s a question researchers have been trying to answer for years, and they’ve come a bit closer to finding out in a new study looking at the impact of airplane noise in those who live close to airports.

Two new studies published in the British Medical Journal this week found that living in a home directly in the flight-path of low-flying planes was associated with an increased risk of being hospitalized for heart disease or a stroke. One study, conducted by Boston-based researchers, examined Medicare records from 6 million seniors living near 89 U.S. airports and found that every 10 decibel level increase in noise from planes that seniors were exposed was linked to a 3.5 percent higher hospitalization rate for heart disease.

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(About 6 percent of the study population was hospitalized for heart problems during 2009 when the data was collected.)

The second study, performed by British researchers, found that folks living near London’s Heathrow airport who were regularly exposed to the greatest levels of noise from planes—greater than 63 decibels which is louder than the sounds of close conversation—were more than 20 percent more likely to be hospitalized for a stroke or for heart disease than those with the least noise exposure.

Neither study could prove that the airport noise led to more hospitalizations, but researchers controlled for certain factors like air pollution and road traffic noise which could also raise heart and stroke risks. They couldn’t control for others like smoking habits or diet.

“Other studies have provided strong evidence that exposure to this noise has an impact on raising blood pressure and disrupting sleep,” said Francesca Dominici, co-author of the U.S. study and associate dean of information technology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Hypertension, chronic stress, and poor sleep habits can contribute to atherosclerosis raising the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes.

“I think it is not sensible for people to buy houses which are exposed to a lot of noise from airports,” said Dr. Stephen Stansfeld, a psychiatrist at the Queen Mary University of London who wrote an editorial that accompanied the studies. He called for city planners to take these new findings into account when building new airports in heavily populated communities.

Dominici pointed out, however, that compared to air pollution, excess noise from planes appeared to play a much smaller role in increasing heart disease risk. She and her colleagues calculated that reducing noise exposure from planes to 45 decibels—equivalent to the hum of sounds in a typical office—could reduce stroke and heart disease hospitalizations by 2.3 percent among those living near airports; reducing air pollution in those same areas could reduce those hospitalizations by about 10 percent.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle, but it’s clearly not the dominant contributor for hospital heart disease admissions even for those who live very close to airports,” said Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health.

Even if the risk of having a heart attack from having your sleep disrupted by planes passing overhead is minute, irritating noises can be an extreme source of stress.

“It depends on the nature of the noise and how we feel about it that determines the level of stress response,” Levy said. Some of us may not care if we get roused on a daily basis at 6:00 a.m. by a train whistle, barking dog, or neighbor’s lawn mower, while others may obsess over the injustice of the disturbance.

Due to an outcry from residents, Brookline severely restricted the use of leaf blowers last year—only allowing them to be used during certain periods in the spring and late fall and even then, only during certain hours.

Levy said people can add sound-proofing to their homes to reduce irritating outdoor noises such as replacing older windows and doors with newer energy-saving models, installing heavy drapes, adding wall and attic insulation, and sealing cracks around windows and doors.

Certain people living close to Logan airport may be eligible for federal subsidies to reduce noise in their homes. Massachusetts Port Authority—which operates Logan, Hanscom Field, and Worcester Regional Airport—has sound-proofed more than 9,000 residences and schools near its airports to reduce airplane noise. To be eligible for coverage, a home must fall within the Federal Aviation Administration’s designated boundaries, which typically means residents are regularly exposed to airplane noises of 65 decibels or more.