When was the last time you walked into a restaurant hoping for a relaxing dinner only to feel like you were in the middle of a rock concert, and a bad one at that? You're not alone. Noise pollution is a real health hazard, especially for older adults. Yes, I'm in the AARP club myself, but don't consider myself "old" (and not sure when that starts) but I've noticed how noise has affected me as I've aged.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines noise pollution as "unwanted or disturbing sound," explaining that "sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping or conversation or disrupts or diminishes one's quality of life. The annoyance can have major consequences, primarily to one's overall health."
Studies show that noise can have a direct and immediate effect on a person's health. Older adults are especially at risk simply because as human's we often react with a "fight or flight" response. With prolonged or obtrusive noise, physiological changes actually are taking place in the nervous, hormonal and vascular systems, resulting in potentially long-lasting consequences.
What can exposure to the constant and excessive level of noises cause to our health? Stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, sleep disruption, depression and lost productivity, to name just a few. Noise pollution is serious business.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identified the following categories of adverse health effect of noise pollution on humans:
- Hearing Impairment due to noise-induced hearing loss is the most common and often-discussed health effect. This may be accompanied by abnormal loudness perception, distortion or tinnitus, which is inflammation of the ear. Tinnitus may be temporary or may become permanent after prolonged exposure.
- Interference with spoken communication; Noise pollution interferes with the ability to comprehend speech and may lead to a number of personal disabilities, handicaps and behavioral changes. These might include problems with concentration, fatigue, uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, irritation, misunderstandings, decreased working capacity, disturbed interpersonal relationships and stress reactions.
- Sleep disturbances: Uninterrupted sleep is known to be a prerequisite for good physiologic and mental functioning in healthy individuals. Environmental noise is one of the major causes of disturbed sleep. When sleep disruption becomes chronic, the results are mood changes, fatigue, depression, a decrease in quality of performance and other long-term effects on well-being.
- Cardiovascular disturbances: The nervous system can be temporarily, and even permanently affected by noise, acting as a biologic stressor, triggering a negative response to the cardiovascular system and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Disturbances in mental health; Noice can accelerate and even intensify the development of mental disorders; however, it is not a direct cause of mental illness. The elderly and those with underlying depression may be particularly vulnerable to these effects because they may lack adequate coping mechanisms.
- Impaired task performance: Noise pollution impairs task performance at school and at work, increases errors, and decreases motivation. Reading attention, problem solving and memory are most strongly affected by noise. Two types of memory deficits have been identified under experimental conditions; recall of subject content and recall of incidental details.
Older Adults are often at risk for increased vulnerability to noise pollution due to slower mental processing and sensory changes that take place in the aging process. Persons living with dementia are at an even great risk as they often struggle with processing what is going on in their environment, decreasing stimuli can decrease certain behaviors. Turning off the TV or radio in the evenings and reducing chatter or at any time you want them to wind down may help decrease agitation.
For care communities, shift change if often met with noise and chatter of oncoming and off going employees. Even shuffling of papers during this busy time can add to agitated behavior, especially with persons living with dementia.
Not all noise is detrimental. In fact, calming background music and can have a positive effect on mood, relaxation, reduced anxiety, and agitation. This is especially true for meal times or helping to induce sleep before naps or bedtime.
Understanding sensory change in older adults, especially those living with dementia is critically important for care partners working in elder care communities, home care providers, families and for businesses who serve older adults.
Pam Brandon is President/Founder of AGE-u-cate® Training Institute and creator of the Dementia Live® simulation and awareness training being implemented by providers across the US and internationally.