The Curhan family, from left: Talia, Alexa, Justin, Joshua, Sharon and Gary

In honor of Father’s Day on Sunday, June 17, BWH Bulletin is recognizing a heartwarming crossroads between fatherhood and research for one BWH dad and his family.

Soon after BWH physician-investigators Gary Curhan, MD, ScD, and Sharon Curhan, MD, MSc, first met as students at Brown University, they came up with a simple but powerful dream: to work side by side as researchers and make a meaningful contribution to health care.

Now married for 35 years and with four children, little did they know at the time how close to home that shared goal would take them.

In 1987, their oldest son, Joshua, was born three months premature. His high-risk birth and complex medical needs resulted in a two-month stay in the Brigham’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and newborn screening revealed a diagnosis of hearing loss – a condition he continues to live with today.

Their family’s experiences have inspired Gary and Sharon – both epidemiologists studying chronic conditions with the Channing Division of Network Medicine – to dedicate much of their research over the past decade to uncovering lesser-known causes of hearing loss, how to diagnose it earlier and ways to slow or prevent its progression.

In 2011, they co-founded the Conservation of Hearing Study (CHEARS) and have since co-authored over 20 papers highlighting environmental and lifestyle risk factors for hearing loss and tinnitus, a condition that causes chronic “ringing” in the ears when no noise is present. Their work has found that hearing health is influenced by pain reliever use; overall dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, as well as intake of fish, caffeine and certain vitamins; hormone use; heavy metals exposure; physical activity; waist circumference and more.

“If you ask the average person what causes hearing loss, they would likely say loud noises and rock concerts. We’re not saying those aren’t important, but there are several other modifiable risk factors that have been underappreciated,” Gary said. “Hearing loss has been part of our life since we had Joshua. We’re thrilled we’re able to give back and hopefully prevent hearing loss in both children and adults.”

Finding Their Mission

Sharon said their journey as a family has given them a deep appreciation for the importance of healthy hearing and the challenges people with hearing loss encounter in their daily lives and over the long term.

“When the opportunity arose to channel our passion for improving efforts toward prevention, earlier detection and management of hearing loss – in a way that combines our research training in medicine, neuroscience and epidemiology – with our firsthand experience as parents of a child with hearing loss, we knew we had found our mission,” Sharon said.

Joshua, now 31 and an elementary school teacher in Lexington, said he is touched by his parents’ commitment.

“I am truly humbled to see that my parents view my hearing loss as inspiration for their research, rather than something to hide,” Joshua said. “To me, it validates the significance of hearing loss and the effects it can have, and I believe the work they are doing toward identifying risk factors and strategies to prevent hearing loss is critical.”

While the Curhans’ devotion to hearing health is a family affair, Sharon and Joshua recently reflected on what they treasured most about Gary as a husband, father, physician and researcher in honor of Father’s Day.

“I am so lucky to have Gary as my partner in every aspect of life – whether it’s family, work, community involvement, traveling or riding our tandem bike,” Sharon said. “His devotion, integrity, insight, intellect, generosity and heartfelt commitment to the people he loves, the patients he cares for, and improving science and health are unparalleled.”

Joshua described his father as one of the kindest, most caring and driven people he has ever known.

“Upon discovering my hearing loss after birth, he and my mom strived to support me as much as possible – from investing in hearing aids to advocating for the best educational settings to spending hours upon hours working with me to improve my speech,” Joshua said. “His demeanor was always upbeat, his words encouraging and his outlook steadfastly positive. I truly would not be where I am without the endless love and dedication of my dad.”