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Teens experiencing hearing loss

Generation iPod

I wonder how many teenagers subscribe to the HSI e-Alert? My guess: around zero. Let’s face it; most teens are blissfully unencumbered by concerns of developing Alzheimer’s disease or coping with an enlarged prostate or managing hot flashes. Nor should they be. You’re only young once. No need to curb the carefree qualities of youth before it’s necessary.

But according to a recent survey, many teens may already be experiencing a condition that’s usually associated with advanced years: hearing loss.

In a survey conducted on behalf of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1,000 adults and about 300 high school students were asked questions about their hearing and the ways they listen to music. Results show that students generally use headphones attached to portable devices such as MP3 players or iPods, and they play their music at higher volumes than adults do. No surprise there, really.

Here’s the surprise: Tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears) is usually associated with aging. But in this survey, 17 percent of the students said they suffered from ringing in the ears, while only 12 percent of the adults reported the same.

Someday, Gen iPod will begin looking for tinnitus relief. And perhaps they’ll find it with melatonin supplements.

Machines & music

Blame it on the fragility of microscopic hairs.

Each auditory cell of the inner ear is covered with tiny hairs. Sound waves put pressure on the hairs, prompting an electrical charge that travels from the cell to the auditory nerve and on to the brain where sound is registered.

Problems start when the hairs become damaged by exposure to repetitive, loud noises, such as machinery or music played at high volume. The damaged hairs move erratically, upsetting the electrical charge of the auditory cells, triggering random electrical impulses that create a steady stream of noise or “ringing.”

The hairs can also be damaged by certain medications, injury to the head or neck, tumors in the head or neck and narrowing of blood vessels. But aging and prolonged exposure to noise are the two most common causes.

Maintaining rhythm

In previous e-Alerts I’ve told you how the hormone melatonin helps regulate the sleep/wake circadian rhythm. But natural melatonin production in the brain’s pineal gland decreases as we age. For some, this upsets the circadian rhythm and prompts sleep disorders that can sometimes be corrected with melatonin supplements. Now new research shows that melatonin may relieve tinnitus as well.

In a small trial conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, researchers recruited 18 subjects who had tinnitus for more than a decade. All of the patients were about 60 years old.

Over four weeks, each subject took 3 mg of melatonin daily. Researchers monitored subjects throughout the testing period and for an additional four weeks after they stopped taking the supplement. Based on assessments provided by the subjects, tinnitus symptoms were reduced and sleep patterns improved over the entire eight-week period. Patients who reported the most pronounced sleep problems at the beginning of the study tended to report the greatest relief in tinnitus symptoms.

As HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., has pointed out in other e-Alerts, melatonin supplements should only be taken at bedtime. He recommends 1.5 mg for ages 40 to 50, and (as in the study) 3 mg for those over 50. He adds that people under the age of 40 should avoid melatonin supplements so as not to overload the body with the hormone. So for at least a couple of decades, tinnitus teens will have to find another way to cope with ringing in the ears.

They can check the e-Alert “What’s the Diff?” (2/2/06) for a discussion about other alternatives for addressing tinnitus.

“Adults Listen Longer, But Teens Turn the Volume Up Higher” Miranda, Hitti, WebMD Medical News, 3/16/06,
“Melatonin Pills May Help Ease Tinnitus” Miranda Hitti, WebMD Medical News, 2/24/06,