If you live on or near a busy street that’s always full of humming motors and the sounds of traffic, you may be more likely to hear a buzzing in your ears — even during silent moments. Scientists at the University of Southern Denmark say there’s a link between traffic noise and the risk of developing tinnitus, a subjective experience of sound (like ringing in the ears) even in a quiet room.

City living certainly offers its fair share of advantages, both economic and social, but study authors explain that when people live in an area with lots of traffic noise, it can add to our stress and keep us awake. Additionally, when we’re stressed out and sleep deprived, we’re also at a higher risk of developing tinnitus, the researchers report. All in all, this research points to urban living promoting a vicious stress cycle, with sleep disturbance as a root potential cause.

Researchers from the Department of Clinical Research and the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) analyzed data encompassing 3.5 million Danes to reach these conclusions. They explain that the more traffic noise Danish residents are exposed to in their homes, the more at risk they become of developing tinnitus.

Tinnitus effects 1 in 10 people

Tinnitus symptoms can vary from person to person, but the ailment is most often associated with whistling tones in one’s ears. This, understandably, can be annoying and distressing, but tinnitus can also be a symptom of an underlying disease or injury. In other cases, the ailment is idiopathic, meaning the cause is a mystery. Often occurring in connection with hearing loss, tinnitus can lead to sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and depression.

This latest work, though, is the first ever to report a clear association between residential traffic noise exposure and hearing-related outcomes.

“In our data, we have found more than 40,000 cases of tinnitus and can see that for every ten decibels more noise in people’s home, the risk of developing tinnitus increases by six percent,” says Manuella Lech Cantuaria, PhD., Assistant Professor at the Mærsk Mc-Kinney-Møller Institute and affiliated to the the Department of Clinical Research at SDU, in a university release.

Prof. Cantuaria, as well as her colleague Jesper Hvass Schmidt, Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Research  and Chief Physician at Odense University Hospital (OUH), is increasingly concerned about the impact of traffic noise on health and well-being. An earlier study conducted by the two scientists in 2021 reports a connection between dementia and traffic noise.

“There is a need for more focus on the importance of traffic noise for health. It is alarming that noise seems to increase the risk of tinnitus, cardiovascular diseases and dementia, among other diseases,” Prof. Jesper Hvass Schmidt adds.

Tinnitus is formally diagnosed at hearing clinics, but study authors say such cases likely represent just the tip of the iceberg. Only the worst cases are referred from their own doctor or an otorhinolaryngologist. Overall, estimates show that roughly 10 percent of the general population experience tinnitus from time to time.

How can someone fight traffic noise?

Study authors stress further work is necessary to determine if traffic noise truly causes tinnitus, and how this occurs. However, scientists already know that traffic noise increases stress and sleep complaints, which can exacerbate tinnitus.

On a related note, the research teams adds that noise at night is especially worrisome, due to its impact on sleep. During the course of this project, the team found higher associations when measuring noise at the quiet side of houses, or the side facing away from the road. Study authors say this is where most people, given a choice, would place their bedroom. So, they believe this is a better indicator of noise during sleep. Meanwhile, they also add there are additional ways to minimize noise at home. Examples include sleeping in a room that does not face the road or installing soundproof windows.

Of course, not everyone has that kind of control over their living situation, or the financial means to make such changes. As such, the research team argues it is necessary to consider traffic noise a health risk when it comes to both urban planning and political decisions.

This article originally appeared on StudyFinds


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