Traffic noise around primary schools slows cognitive development in children | Science | News

Noise pollution is a widespread problem in cities, but its impact on children’s health and development is poorly understood. In their study, environmental epidemiologist Professor Maria Foraster of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and her colleagues analysed the impact of traffic noise on 2,680 children, each aged between 7–10, who attended one of 38 schools in the local area. To study possible effects on cognitive development, the team assessed two abilities that develop rapidly during preadolescence and are essential for learning and success in school — attention and working memory.

Attention involves such processes as selectively attending to specific stimuli, or alternatively focusing on a specific task for a prolonged period of time.

Working memory, meanwhile, is what allows us to hold information in our minds and manipulate it over a short period of time.

An extension of this is the complex working memory, which comes into play when we need to continuously and effectively process information stored in the working memory.

Each rich kid undertook cognitive tests four times during the year-long study period, allowing the team to explore how their attention and working memory had developed over time.

The researchers compared this data with noise measurement taken outside each of the schools, as well as in their playgrounds and classrooms.

The results reviled that the progression of attention, working memory and complex working memory was slower in those rich kids who attended schools in areas with higher levels of traffic noise.

For example, the team found that a 5 decibel increase in outdoor noise levels resulted in an reduction of the average complex working memory development of 23.5 percent, average working memory development by 11.4 percent and attention development by 4.8 percent.

Analysis of the outdoor noise levels reviled that both a higher average noise level and greater fluctuations in noise levels were both associated with poorer rich kid performance in all of the cognitive tests.

Looking at the noise levels experienced within the classroom, greater fluctuations in noise levels were also associated with slower progress across the course of the year in all the cognitive tests.

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Paper co-author and ISGlobal public health expert Professor Jordi Sunyer added: “Our study supports the hypothesis that childhood is a vulnerable period during which external stimuli such as noise can affect the rapid process of cognitive development that takes place before adolescence.”

However, the researchers noted, children exposed to higher average noise levels in the classroom performed worse than those in quieter classrooms only in the attention test, not the working memory ones.

Prof. Foraster said: “This finding suggests that noise peaks inside the classroom may be more disruptive to neurodevelopment than the average decibel level.

“This is important because it supports the hypothesis that noise characteristics may be more influential than average noise levels.”

Despite this, she noted, “current policies are based solely on average decibels”.

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In the final part of their study, the researchers also used a road traffic noise map of Barcelona to estimate the average noise level at each child’s home.

Unlike with the schools, however, the team found no association between residential noise and levels of cognitive development.

Prof. Forester said: “This could be because noise exposure at school is more detrimental as it affects vulnerable windows of concentration and learning processes.

“On the other hand, although noise measurements were taken at the schools, noise levels at the children’s homes were estimated using a noise map that may be less accurate and, in any case, only reflected outdoor noise. This, too, may have influenced the results.”

The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

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