High levels of aircraft noise raise the risks of stroke, heart and circulatory disease, according to a medical study.

Research published in the British Medical Journal covering 3.6 million residents near Heathrow suggest the risks were 10-20% higher in areas with the highest levels of aircraft noise.

It indicated a higher risk for both hospital admissions and deaths from stroke, heart and circulatory disease for the 2% of the study – about 70,000 people – who lived where the aircraft noise was loudest, the BBC reported.

The study covered 12 London boroughs in the centre and west of the capital – and nine council districts beyond London, including Windsor and Maidenhead, Slough and Wokingham.

It used data about noise levels in 2001 from the Civil Aviation Authority, covering areas where aircraft noise exceeds 50 decibels – about the volume of a normal conversation in a quiet room.

The authors said fewer people are now affected by the highest levels of noise (above 63 decibels) – despite more aircraft being in the skies – because of changes in aircraft design and flight plans.

The researchers – from Imperial and King’s College London – adjusted their work in an effort to eliminate other factors that might have a relationship with stroke and heart disease, such as deprivation, South Asian ethnicity and smoking-related illness.

They stressed that the higher risk of illness related to aircraft noise remained much less significant than the risks from lifestyle factors – including smoking, a lack of exercise or poor diet.

In an accompanying editorial, Professor Stephen Stansfeld, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “These results imply that the siting of airports and consequent exposure to aircraft noise may have direct effects on the health of the surrounding population.

“Planners need to take this into account when expanding airports in heavily populated areas or planning new airports.”

Heathrow director of sustainability Matt Gorman said: “We are already taking significant steps to tackle the issue of noise.

“We are charging airlines more for noisier aircraft, offering insulation and double glazing to local residents and are working with noise campaigners to give people predictable periods of respite from noise.

“Together these measures have meant that the number of people affected by noise has fallen by 90% since the 1970s, despite the number of flights almost doubling.”