Though hearing loss is synonymous with aging, medical breakthroughs aim to halt that process in the future.

Cutting-edge technology is also helping young people retain their hearing even while they’re bombarded with earbud, headphone and surround-sound clamor.

Though still in its infancy, research by biotech companies centers around experimental drugs, gene therapy and stem-cell remedies to regrow the part of the cochlea that gets damaged naturally as people age.

The idea is for these hearing-loss preventative solutions — still years, if not decades in the future — to interfere with the body’s production of damaging molecules, called free radicals, that can harm the inner ear’s hair cells. That harm results in adults losing the ability to hear higher-decibel sounds as they age.

Hearing loss also may result from diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, certain types of chemotherapy, or failing to wear ear protection while working in noisy occupations, said Dr. Paul Pessis, owner and president of North Shore Audio-Vestibular Lab, with offices in Highland Park and Long Grove.

The key is for people to get tested so the type of hearing loss can be diagnosed and, if possible, a cause found, Pessis said.

A Chicago DJ took such precautionary measures when he feared that ringing in his ears might damage not only his hearing but his beloved career.

Custom-molded silicone earplugs that set inside his ears help Chicago DJ Matt Rusinek minimize sound levels that could damage his ears. | MICHELLE KANAAR/FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Matt Rusinek has spun records since he was in seventh grade, and his six years of hard work have earned him DJ status with a rap group that’s among the top online vote getters for Chicago’s Toast of the Coast music festival competition.

The 19-year-old musician has worked gigs ranging from Chicago-area clubs and house parties to events at his alma mater, St. Mary’s Middle School in Buffalo Grove, to the Medusa nightclub in Elgin. He uses the DJ moniker Anthony Leon — a combination of his given name and his paternal grandfather’s first name.

But it wasn’t until Rusinek got his dream job marketing concerts and going on road tours that he experienced ringing in his ears.

Rusinek was promoted in January from media team member to social-media marketer at Boom Entertainment, a concert-promotions firm. In his new role, Rusinek gets to create graphics and Snapchat geofilters and to travel to and help set up concerts throughout the Chicago region. While on the latest trip, he said he was exposed to “crushing amounts of decibels in my ears” before and during the concerts. Rusinek said he started hearing ringing in his ears for two hours after each concert.

“I’d hope that I didn’t wake up with [the ringing],” he said. “I didn’t know whether it was going to get to the point where, when I woke up, it would never go away.”

It was getting progressively worse. So Rusinek went to the North Shore Audiology-Vestibular Lab, fearing that he faced never-ending ringing in his ears if he didn’t act quickly.

The clinic custom-molded silicone earplugs that set inside his ears at a cost of $220, which insurance did not cover. He also uses three pairs of Shure inner-ear monitors (IEMs), which block and isolate surrounding sounds to prevent hearing loss. He stopped using everyday headphones because the tendency is to turn up the music volume so it’s louder than the surrounding crowd. The latter practice can be “incredibly damaging” to one’s hearing, Rusinek said.

“As a DJ, you can have the most expensive mixer, digital turntable and MacBook, but it’s meaningless if you lose your hearing,” Rusinek said. “Music is the way I live. My life revolves around music. Not to mention, I enjoy waking up and hearing the birds and going to bed and hearing the crickets.”

Rusinek is among 15 percent (37.5 million) of U.S. adults ages 18 and older who report some trouble hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).  Another high-risk occupation for hearing loss is military service, since soldiers are surrounded by the sharp sounds of munitions as well as the steady noise of machinery.

Kathleen C.M. Campbell, distinguished scholar and professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, established the audiology clinic and research and teaching programs there. She is testing a drug that she patented, which aims to reduce veterans’ hearing loss from noise, radiation and antibiotics.

“We’ve used [the experimental drug] in clinical trials with no adverse effects,” said Campbell, who has won a $2.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further develop the drug, in addition to a $2.6 million grant to give the drug to soldiers at Fort Jackson, S.C., as a clinical trial.

Campbell isn’t sure yet when the drug might get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval, but she noted that the cost of getting a drug from its laboratory origins through FDA approval for clinical use averages is $2.5 billion.

If all goes well, such a hearing-loss treatment would stem veterans’ biggest expense — the treatment of hearing loss and tinnitus, or hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing or clicking in one’s ears.

Only 20 to 25 percent of U.S. adults who need hearing aids actually wear them. | THINKSTOCK IMAGES

Even though only 20 to 25 percent of U.S. adults who need hearing aids actually wear them, the next generation of biotech-engineered solutions is going forward that look to do away with people’s attitudes that hearing aids make them look old or otherwise hurt their image.

Biotech companies are getting backing from venture capitalists and venture-funding groups because they see a potentially big payoff, said Dr. Mark A. Parker, director of audiology at Steward St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, and assistant professor of Otolaryngology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

“Their goal is to develop a therapy that will regenerate the damaged cells that cause hearing loss,” he said.

Hearing loss also may result from medical issues.

Daniel Sagerman, 22, suffered hearing loss as the result of chemotherapy to treat neuroblastoma when he was three years old. The Northwestern University graduate is photographed on campus on Sunday, July 23, 2017. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Daniel Sagerman, a 22-year-old Long Grove resident who recently earned his bachelor’s in economics from Northwestern University, suffered hearing loss from side effects of chemotherapy to treat his neuroblastoma cancer, starting when he was three years old.

Since Sagerman cannot hear high-frequency noises such as an alarm clock, he slipped a vibrating alarm clock under his pillow while he was growing up – prior to today’s phone apps that let him program a better wake-up call.

Sagerman wears hearing aids in both ears and uses their technological advances, such as Bluetooth capability and background noise-blocking microphones. He also wears a receiver in class so his teachers’ voices get projected directly to him.

“The technological improvements have been amazing, especially in the past two years,” Sagerman said.

He said others in his position can feel like outsiders, but the best way to overcome any qualms is to get involved and advocate for yourself as much as possible.

“As long as you do your best and live your life without limits, then people will respect you for who you are,” he said.
Sagerman will start pursuing his master’s degree in sports administration at Northwestern this fall.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.

Types of tests for hearing loss
• Basic audiogram — Tests ability to hear high- to low-frequency pitches that people need to hear as part of their daily lives.
• Tympanometry is a measure of the stiffness of the eardrum and evaluates middle ear function. The tool measures movement of the tympanic membrane (eardrum) in responses to pressure changes, determines whether the bone in the middle ear has calcified.
• Auditory brain stem response can be tested at birth. It can be used to identify levels of hearing, a low-level sound emitted by the cochlea either spontaneously or evoked by an auditory stimulus.

Resources
• Who Can I Turn to for Help with My Hearing Loss? (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing-ear-infections-deafness)
• Age-Related Hearing Loss (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/age-related-hearing-loss)

An audiologist conducts a hearing test. | THINKSTOCKIMAGES