While it may be obvious to the people it affects most, research now confirms that living next to an airport can seriously curtail how much sleep you get.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health and Oregon State University published a study last month linking increased airplane noise with getting fewer than seven hours of sleep a night, the benchmark of a decent night’s rest for most adults. Shorter sleep duration or low-quality sleep over time can lead to a variety of health problems and affect your overall well-being.
The study, which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives, was modeled around 90 airports in the US and included self sleep reports from over 35,000 female nurses. (The same cohort of people has been used for other studies and research as part of the decades-long Nurses’ Health Study.) It found that a person experiencing noise from overhead as low as 45 decibels was less likely to sleep seven or more hours.
For scale, 45 dB is typically less intense than the volume of a typical conversation but more intense than a refrigerator hum.
The study focused on average noise levels across a 24-hour period, adjusting by 10 dB for night time when it’s quieter and noise is more noticeable.
There are some caveats to the study, including that it followed only women. One smaller study from 2009 found that exposure to aircraft noise did increase the salivary cortisol levels in women (cortisol is the stress hormone) but, surprisingly, not in men. And while this latest line of research on noise pollution from aircraft adds to evidence that it can adversely affect your health, including the risk of hypertension, some of the neighborhoods exposed to noise pollution in general may also be affected by other types of pollution or inequities that can impact health over time. This can mean aircraft noise is just one piece of the puzzle of how our environment impacts our sleep.
If you live in a home close to an airport, there are things you can do to combat the noise (at least some of the time).
How to sleep better at night with airplane noise
Using sound to block out other sounds is a tip backed by science. Researchers from one study from 2020 found that “sound masking” noise with pleasant sound caused brain responses and connections in study participants that may’ve helped them mask the annoyance from other noise — in this case, 80 dBA of aircraft noise recorded from a neighborhood in China.
While this is likely louder than the noise of an airplane circling above your home (there’s legal framework in place in the US for aircraft noise over 65 decibels, according to the study), it did provide interesting evidence on what can be effective at soothing our noise-besieged minds. Researchers in this study found music clipped from the Chinese violin concerto “Butterfly Lovers” to be most effective in masking this sound, compared to the sounds of a waterfall, the wind, fountains and other clipped music. Give it a listen below.
This finding may offer a more creative escape for those who suffer with airplane noise near an airport. And based on the acoustics of your home, as well as the location and flight paths of the airplanes overhead, you might experiment with different background noises depending on the time of day. For example, I like playing binaural beats or jazz music on my headphones or Bose Bluetooth speaker while I’m working because it helps me focus when my apartment building is noisy (music with no lyrics is helpful to me).
For those who want to sleep better at night but are haunted by the frequent buzz of airplanes, consider investing in a pair of noise-blocking headphones you can sleep in — here are some of the best sleep headphones we’ve tested.
You might also benefit from experimenting with the different types of white and brown noise. White noise is a constant tone that contains equal levels of sound across all ranges of the audio spectrum; sort of like the static from a TV that’s turned on with no channel tuned in. Brown noise is deeper; it kind of sounds like rainfall or thunder and may be a good bet if you’re trying to drown out the bass of your neighbor’s music.
If the noise of flights passing overhead is unbearable and you’re able to do some repairs on your home, you may also consider getting some noise-canceling curtains, insulating your windows and doors and filling in any sound gaps that may help quiet your environment.