By Nirmala Dhar, Oregon Behavioral Health Initiative Project Director

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.
—Healthy People 2010

Older Adults typically have more comorbidities, complex care regimens, limited literacy and decreased cognitive function and are at risk for inadequate functional understanding of health concepts and roles. Limited health literacy has been linked to increased health disparities, poor health outcomes, increased use of health care services and several health safety issues such as medication errors.

Improving health literacy for older adults is critical as information about choices and health care decisions have become more complex.

Literacy involves reading, writing, speaking, doing basic math and applying these skills daily to health. However, sensory, perceptual and cognitive abilities work together to help older adults process health information.

An expert panel report in 2009 made the following conclusions:

  • There is a high rate of the “truly disconnected” (those not using the internet) among older adults and many receive their information form family, friends and print resources.
  • Several age-related issues – vision, hearing and cognition- influence the ability of older adults to process health information.
  • Cognition is an important predictor of health literacy among older adults more so than years of education.
  • Other characteristics related to health literacy include psychosocial skills, self-efficacy, expectations and experiences.
  • Older Adults want health information.
  • The ability to understand numeracy and risk information and to perform calculations is becoming increasingly important in health care.

Here are some key lessons as we help disseminate this message of the importance of health literacy for our older adults:

  • Keep information focused
  • Repeat as needed
  • Allow time to process information
  • Use face-to-face information
  • High light the short- term benefits
  • Provide enough follow up

Older adult specialists continue to make issues related to health literacy and older adults better known in their communities and shine a light on ways in which we need to create and deliver usable, appropriate health information for older adults.