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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

Heroes, if you’ve ever suffered a hearing loss or tinnitus, you know that hearing is a precious thing. I personally haven’t had tinnitus. I have noticed some loss of hearing recently, and even that slight change can make life difficult. Hubby is quite hard of hearing, so he knows very well how much difficulty that can cause.

I learned recently about an organization called the Hearing Health Foundation. They have some promising news! It turns out that there are special cells in the ears of chickens that can regenerate. Researchers think they can use this information to find a cure for folks suffering from hearing loss and tinnitus. How amazing is that?

Shari Eberts is the chairman of the Hearing Health Foundation. Shari has suffered from hearing loss since her late twenties and has made it her mission to empower others to get a conversation going about hearing loss causes and research. A mom of two and former Wall-Streeter in her forties, Shari has committed herself to supporting the search for a cure. I got to interview Shari, and her answers are recorded below.

1. What is tinnitus? Do people who have it have an increased risk of hearing loss?

Tinnitus is the conscious experience of sound that originates in one’s head often experienced as ringing, roaring, or buzzing in the ears. It is hearing sound without an external, acoustic source.  Brief, spontaneous tinnitus, lasting seconds to minutes, happens to almost everyone.  Temporary tinnitus, lasting minutes to hours, occurs routinely after excessive noise exposure that is sufficiently intense or prolonged to cause temporary injury to the ear. Such exposure could include the sound of a firecracker set off near the ear or sitting near the speakers at a rock concert.  Chronic tinnitus is present frequently or continuously. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders defines chronic tinnitus as occurring for more than three months.

In 90% of cases, someone with tinnitus also has an underlying hearing loss.  The hearing loss could be severe or mild, depending on the case. Tinnitus and hearing loss are the top service-related disabilities among veterans, with 60 percent of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan returning home with hearing loss and/or tinnitus.

Hearing Health Foundation’s Summer 2013 issue of Hearing Health magazine focused exclusively on tinnitus.  These articles are featured on our website alongside other resources on tinnitus.

2. Can you tell me a little about your own hearing loss?  Did it begin with tinnitus?

I have a genetic hearing loss that I first began to notice in my mid to late twenties.  It has gotten progressively worse since then and I now wear hearing aids every day to hear better.  I am lucky to have only mild tinnitus so far.  As someone who lives with hearing loss everyday, I am personally thrilled with the prospects for a cure.  Life with hearing loss can be frustrating. Sometimes you miss the joke when everyone else is laughing and sometimes you miss important information because you don’t hear it. Supportive family and friends can make living with hearing loss easier, but a genuine cure would be life changing.

3.  What is it about chickens that is giving researchers hope for curing hearing loss?

The key to restoring hearing in humans is to regenerate cells deep within the inner ear. In fact, most types of hearing loss in humans results from damage to these cells, called hair cells.

While humans cannot regenerate hair cells in the inner ear after they are damaged, chickens can, and our recently launched Public Service Announcement (PSA) highlights this magical ability that chickens hold. Most animals other than mammals can regenerate these delicate cells, restoring their hearing spontaneously after damage. Our goal is to translate this to humans.  Since 90% of tinnitus occurs with an underlying hearing loss, a cure for hearing loss may also be a cure for tinnitus.

4.  What is the Hearing Health Foundation?

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF)’s mission is to prevent and cure hearing loss and tinnitus through groundbreaking research.  Since 1958, HHF has been the largest private funder of hearing and balance research.  Fifth years ago, restoring hearing to a deaf person seemed like a dream.  Since then, HHF funded research has led to the development of cochlear implants and to many of today’s other standard treatments for hearing loss.  Today, HHF funded researchers are working on another dream – the biological restoration of hearing to many of the more than 50 million Americans who suffer from hearing loss.  HHF’s Hearing Restoration Project (HRP) aims to achieve just that in the next 10 years.

5.   You say that HHF has hopes of curing hearing loss in ten years.  What form(s) of hearing loss are you working on, and what is the plan for research and development?

The HRP is a consortium of auditory scientists worldwide that have developed a strategic research plan to develop a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus in 10 years. This three-phase plan starts with discovery research and culminates in clinical trials. The plan, developed specifically by the HRP scientists and updated to incorporate new findings and approaches, is a living document meant to guide but not limit the work. Relevance to this strategic plan is one of the criteria for a project to receive HRP funding from HHF.  We are currently in phase I of the plan.

HRP specifically targets sensorineural hearing loss, which is the most common type of hearing loss, and which is currently permanent.  Damage to the hair cells in the inner ear is the most typical cause of sensorineural hearing loss.  HHF’s Hearing Restoration Project is focused on curing sensorineural hearing loss, through the regeneration of these damaged inner ear hair cells, and with it the regeneration of hearing.

The amazing thing is that regeneration happens naturally and very robustly in almost all animals – mammals are the exception.  This makes HHF and the researchers confident that we will find a way to stimulate this regeneration in mammals, including humans.  While ten years may seem like a long time, and it is for someone like myself who lives with hearing loss every day, it is realistically within my lifetime, and that gives me hope and excites me for the future.  While we continue our research on the road to a cure, we encourage people with hearing loss to seek treatment for the condition through hearing aids or other means, so that they can enjoy the highest quality of life possible.

6. How can my readers help the project?

There are lots of ways for people to learn more about HHF and help support our research for a cure for hearing loss and tinnitus.

  1. Visit our website to learn more
  2. Stay up to date on all the latest news by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter
  3. Sign up for our informative monthly e-newsletter
  4. Subscribe to Hearing Health Magazine, our award-winning leading consumer publication on hearing loss.  Get the latest on research breakthroughs, strategies to manage hearing loss, personal stories, hearing technologies and products, and features on seniors, pediatrics, veterans, musicians and more.
  5. Inspire others by sharing your personal story and draw comfort from the stories of others
  6. Create a fundraising event or giving page
  7. Make a tribute gift to honor a loved one with hearing loss or a favorite audiologist
  8. Support our work with a tax-deductible donation

Thanks Shari!

Earnest Parenting: help for parents who are concerned about hearing loss.