A nationwide survey by federal researchers of residents in all 50 states and the District has found that in nearly 1,600 households in which people owned guns, 21.5 percent said they kept at least one weapon unlocked and loaded.

In addition, the study, which was published in the June issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, found that 11 percent of homes containing at least one unlocked and loaded firearm were inhabited by children. Firearm-related injuries, including accidental shootings, are one of the leading causes of death among children and adolescents, according to statistics maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-third of American households keep at least one firearm in their home or car.

"Children, who are naturally inquisitive, and adolescents, who are daring and susceptible to peer pressure, may seek out a firearm in their home or may not heed warnings to avoid handling a firearm in any setting when unsupervised by an adult," the authors of the study wrote. Even children as young as 3 or 4 have the finger strength necessary to pull a trigger, they noted.

Pediatricians and other health care providers should counsel parents about safe practices, concluded the study, which was headed by Gail Stennies of the National Center for Infectious Diseases. "The prevalence of loaded, unlocked firearms in homes is sufficient to warrant health care providers taking a universal precautions approach to firearm safety counseling," the authors wrote.

--Sandra G. Boodman


Untreated hearing loss in older people can lead to a variety of problems, including depression, anxiety and social isolation, according to a survey of more than 2,300 hearing-impaired people over age 50.

Compared with those who use hearing aids, the study found, hearing-impaired people who do not use hearing aids are more likely to report sadness and depression; worry and anxiety; paranoia; reduced social activity; and emotional turmoil and insecurity.

The differences between hearing aid users and nonusers held up even when researchers controlled for the effects of other differences, such as age, gender and income.

For example, chronic sadness or depression was reported by 14 percent of hearing aid users but 23 percent of nonusers with mild hearing loss.

Hearing aid users reported improvements in many aspects of their lives, including their family relationships, sense of independence and sex life. More than 2,000 family members or close friends of the hearing-impaired respondents, asked a parallel set of questions, also noticed the same improvement in the lives of the hearing aid users.

The national survey, the largest of its kind, was commissioned by the National Council on the Aging, which reported the findings last month. The research was conducted by Market Strategies Inc., a survey research firm, and partly funded by the Hearing Industries Association, a hearing aid industry trade group.

Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions in the United States. It affects more than 9 million Americans over age 65, and another 10 million aged 45 to 64. A majority of those people do not use hearing aids, according to the National Council on the Aging.

--Don Colburn


The sedative drug thalidomide, once shunned in this country because of its damaging effects on developing fetuses, may be helpful in reducing symptoms of severe Crohn's disease, according to a study by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

Thalidomide was recently approved by federal authorities for the treatment of leprosy, and it is also being studied for a variety of other conditions.

Crohn's disease produces inflammation in the small intestine. Chronic diarrhea and abdominal pain are the common symptoms. People with the disease often must take steroids to help control their symptoms, but these powerful drugs carry their own risk of side effects and they don't always work.

There is evidence that when Crohn's disease occurs, intestinal cells begin manufacturing too much of certain substances, including tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin. Thalidomide decreases production of TNF.

The 12-week study involved 12 men with moderate to severe Crohn's disease. The average age of participants was 41 years, but men in the study ranged in age from 19 to 61. Participants had been diagnosed with Crohn's for an average of 18 years.

The first six patients took 50 milligrams of thalidomide a day for 12 weeks. The next six patients were given 100 milligrams a day for the same period of time.

The study found improvement with both dosages. About 75 percent of patients on the high dose showed improvements compared with 67 percent on the low dose.

While both groups showed significant improvement in symptoms, surprisingly, patients on low dose thalidomide showed the greatest rates of remission of the disease. About a third of patients on the low dose regimen of thalidomide went into remission while none in the higher dose group experienced remission, according to the study.

Authors of the study, who presented the findings last month at the annual meeting of the American Gastroenterological Association, cautioned that the results need to be confirmed with larger trials. Until then, the use of thalidomide for Crohn's disease is still experimental.

--Sally Squires