How Living In A City Really Can Affect Your Health

You know that Frank Sinatra song that plays at your favorite bar when it's about to kick you out for the night? "I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps," Sinatra croons, "And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap." Sinatra, like no other, can convince you that a life lived outside of the eternal time-loop of changing street lights, 24-hour pizza, and skidding tires is no life at all.

Frank Sinatra, however, was a poet. And scientists can name at least 1,001 reasons to cling to your "small-town blues." They'll start with the traffic. In 2016, Los Angeles Times ran a story listing studies that prove noise pollution significantly damages your health. In some cases, it may literally shorten your lifespan. There is a study out of England suggesting that your "risk of death from any cause was increased by 4 percent in areas with noise level over 60 decibels when compared to quieter areas," according to co-author Jaana Halonen. That's possibly due to noise's effect on blood pressure and stress hormones. Background noise in cities typically hovers around 60 decibels, according to The Atlantic. Traffic and subway noises can expose you to 85 decibels of noise pollution.

As for stress hormones produced by noise? According to a Swedish study cited by Los Angeles Times, those can make your waistline thicker. A Danish study, meanwhile, found that noise pollution can increase your risk of stroke, especially if you're older. And that's just the noise.

What about air quality in cities?

Let's talk about those pictures from the 2020 forest fires in California — the ones showing San Francisco's breathtaking, horrifying, blood-red skyline. The photos aren't only remarkable for being instant, Instagram sensations. They also brought into terrifying focus another often (literally) overlooked phenomenon: air pollution. Wildfire-induced pollution may be more severe than "run-of-the-mill" particle pollution that United States' urban dwellers ingest on a daily basis. But that doesn't mean that "everyday" air pollution isn't Darth Vader-level dangerous, too.

On the contrary, in 2019, BBC ran an article citing studies showing that city air pollution can do to your lungs what 29 years of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day can. Air pollution, according to further research cited in the same article, has also been negatively linked to obesity, diabetes, and even the amount of money in your pocketbook. That's bad news for the United State's urban population. It's especially grim tidings for the 21.2 million people in the United States who breathed in unhealthy air year-round in  2020 according to The American Lung Association. And it's certainly not great for nearly half of the United States population who is exposed to air pollution and its associated health risks on a yearly basis.

Is country living right for you? Maybe not

Despite everything, it may not be time to pack your bags, switch music allegiances from Frank Sinatra to Tim McGraw, and move to the country. Country living, and especially rural living, can also put your health at considerable risk. Consider a 2012 article in a Canadian Medical Association journal, CMAJ, which documented lower life expectancy and higher rates of obesity, smoking, and cardiovascular disease among Canada's country dwellers. A 2011 The Wall Street Journal article documents similar findings for rural, United States residents.

In some cases, remote living can also limit your access to life-saving medical care. As the Rural Health Information Hub documents, rural areas in the United States were home to 62.93 percent of primary care health shortages in 2019. And, as the BBC points out, especially for the elderly, living in isolated areas in the countryside can lead to loneliness.

There's no black and white equation that can guarantee you that living in the country or opting for a city (or anything in between) is the best choice for your physical and mental wellbeing. Instead, public health professor Andy Jones suggested to BBC that it's all about informed, personal choice. You'll end up living where you want to, or need to, based on your employment, finance, health, and lifestyle preferences.