Yi Hu has always had a close relationship with his grandfather, who lived in a poor, coal-mining region of China. Around 2005, his grandfather began to complain about hearing difficulty.

“We knew that hearing aids could help him, but living in a small city, he had no access to audiologists, and hearing aids were just too expensive for him,” said Hu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

His grandfather’s dilemma is common. Only one in six people in the U.S. who could benefit from hearing aids use them, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The reason is primarily cost. Basic Medicare does not cover the devices, a situation that has caused hearing health-care inequity for lower-income and rural residents.

Untreated hearing loss can be serious because it’s associated with dementia, depression, falls and social isolation.

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