Children in schools with more traffic noise have slower cognitive development, study shows

ISGlobal research sees no correlation between development and home noise levels


Vehicles on the AP-7 highway on April 18, 2022 (by Laura Fíguls)
Vehicles on the AP-7 highway on April 18, 2022 (by Laura Fíguls) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

June 6, 2022 10:34 AM

A study demonstrates that working memory and attention span development is lower in primary school children who go to schools with more traffic noise.

The research, led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) as part of their ‘Breathe’ project, assessed over two and a half thousand children between the ages of seven and ten from 38 schools around the Catalan capital.

ISGlobal measured noise levels in outdoor spaces at the 38 schools, as well as within the classrooms for 12 months between 2012 and 2013.

The study indicates that students exposed to an extra five decibels of outside noise have 11.4% slower working memory development, 23.5% worse complex working memory, and 4.8% lower attention span.

Maria Foraster, one of the leaders of the study alongside Jordi Sunyer, attributes this to the fact that “exposure to noise at school is more harmful because it affects vulnerable periods of concentration and learning processes.”

However, the researchers found no relationship between noise around one's place of residence and cognitive development. Foraster conceded that this may not be completely accurate, as while the noise levels were measured in the classrooms, they used a 2012 road traffic noise map of Barcelona to determine home noise levels.

Classroom noise

In addition to the negative impact of increased traffic noise for students, the study also revealed that a higher variation in classroom noise levels was also associated with slower cognitive learning.

Foraster concluded that “high noise inside the classroom could be more disruptive to neurological development than the average decibel,” with Sunyer adding that the study “reinforces the hypothesis that childhood is a period of vulnerability in which external stimuli such as noise can affect the process of cognitive development.”