IMAGE: RIDO/SHUTTERSTOCK
IMAGE: RIDO/SHUTTERSTOCK

Hearing loss is an enormous public health burden, affecting an estimated 48 million Americans, including a third of people over age 65. And it’s getting worse: one study projects that at current rates, the number of Americans with hearing loss will nearly double by 2060, outpacing population growth. Globally, the picture is also grim, with the WHO estimating that by 2050, nearly 2.5 billion people worldwide—one in four people on the planet—will have some hearing loss.

The idea of fixing or reversing poor hearing has long seemed out of reach. Most of the time, the best solution for hearing loss is hearing aids—an enormous help, but not a cure. But researchers are, in fact, exploring techniques to restore function: One potential approach involves regrowing the sensory hair cells of the inner ear that can be lost due to age or other causes. (Weirdly enough, other non-mammalian animal species have the natural ability to regrow lost hair cells.) There are also other disabling diseases of the ear afflicting large numbers of people, such as conditions that affect the sense of balance. In sum, there’s a pressing global need and potential medical solutions worth investigating.

But philanthropy is pretty absent when it comes to hearing research. One of the few active funders in the field is the American Hearing Research Foundation (AHRF). The Elmhurst, Illinois, foundation traces its origin back to 1956, when Dr. George E. Shambaugh Jr., a pioneering ear surgeon, and other physicians associated with Northwestern University, created the Mid West Hearing Foundation, eventually renamed the American Hearing Research Foundation.

Like many philanthropic funders in medical research, the AHRF’s approach focuses on early-stage research, providing relatively small sums that can advance research concepts to the point that investigators can apply for larger grants. All of its grantmaking goes for research—as opposed to, say, programs that support people with hearing loss or related issues.

“I’ve talked to many hearing researchers who are struggling to find funding,” said Joan Wincentsen, director of AHRF. “There’s a lot of competition and not enough dollars.”

In hearing research, the serious money comes from the National Institutes of Health. Other funding comes, not so surprisingly, from the Veterans Administration, as people who serve in the military are at higher risk of hearing loss as a result of exposure to loud equipment and not-so-quiet weapons. But hearing loss also affects more people than you might think. It’s not only your grandfather’s health challenge, according to the NIH; approximately 15% of American adults 18 and over report having hearing issues.

To bridge the gap between need and available funding, and between researchers and larger pools of federal funds, AHRF runs five annual grant programs. Dollars go toward research into hearing and balance disorders, causes of sudden hearing loss, Meniere’s disease and related ear and hearing issues. AHRF funding supports both clinical studies, such as potential therapies, as well as basic science at the cellular level to better understand the entire auditory pathway, Wincentsen said. One grant program supports new researchers entering the field. In 2019, the funder awarded about $300,000 in grants and is aiming to increase that to about $325,000 in 2022.

One of the annual grants supports research into sudden hearing loss, an unexplained and rapid loss of hearing, often in just one ear. That grant was established by a donor who experienced the problem in two instances—38 years apart—and learned that treatment had not advanced in all that time. A similar story occurred in connection with the AHRF’s funding for Meniere’s disease: A donor with personal experience with the disease saw the dearth of progress and stepped up.

AHRF’s own funding base consists of donations from individuals, employee giving programs and the merchant donor programs Amazon Smile and iGive. It also receives funding from its partnership with the high school athlete charity Run BeCAUSE, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and funding for Meniere’s disease research. Other AHRF income comes from investments.

While AHRF plays an important role in hearing research, there’s a lot of room for more funders interested in health to boost grantmaking in the field. This is important for addressing the main symptoms of hearing loss, as well as the immediate social, professional and personal burdens that such loss causes. But the health impact of hearing loss goes beyond understanding speech. Research suggests that hearing loss is associated with higher healthcare costs overall, as well as accelerated cognitive decline and poorer physical functioning—all serious concerns set against the background of an aging U.S. population.

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