Though the internet has made it possible for medical information to be more accessible and widespread, health literacy is still a concern for many. Older adults in particular often face unique challenges in navigating the complex world of healthcare, which can have serious consequences since they are also the population at the greater risk of chronic health conditions. 

The Importance of Health Literacy for Older Adults

Health literacy is an essential tool for older adults for several reasons:

  • Knowledge can lead to empowerment: If an older adult understands their own health conditions, treatment options and medications, they are more likely to be empowered to make their own decisions and take informed steps to improve their health in their daily life.
  • Knowing the risks improves preventative care: Health-literate individuals are more likely to engage in preventive measures such as vaccinations, screenings, check-ups and conversations with physicians on family history concerns.
  • Understanding medication makes managing prescriptions easier: Many older adults, especially those with multiple prescriptions, struggle with medication management. Health literacy can help them better understand prescription labels, dosing instructions, and side effects.
  • Literacy is key to effective and confident communication: Good communication with healthcare professionals can greatly improve the quality of help received, but it takes a certain amount know-how for many to feel confident enough to do so. Health-literate older adults are more likely to express their concerns clearly to physicians, ask questions and provide detailed health information that will help their care team better serve their needs.

Barriers to Health Literacy for Older Adults

Though the above reasons show the importance of health literacy, it’s not always simple to achieve. Take enrolling in Medicare, for example. It’s something most people will eventually do, but it’s not something that is taught in school, so even well-educated people may be unfamiliar with the process unless they’ve done prior research. The terminology involved in the descriptions of the different plans may be unfamiliar for anyone that hasn’t interacted much with the medical field. And if English is your second language, there’s a chance the site has information in your native tongue—but perhaps even in your first language, these words aren’t something you’ve encountered often.

Here are some common examples of barriers that stand in the way of older adults becoming health literate:

  • Complex medical information: Healthcare information can be dense and filled with medical jargon, making it difficult to understand.
  • Cognitive decline: Memory loss and dementia can impair the ability to process and retain health information.
  • Limited access to resources: Many older adults lack access to the internet or are unfamiliar with how to use it. Others, especially those in rural areas, may even lack easy access to printed materials that would help in educating themselves.
  • Language barriers and cultural differences: Many older adults come from diverse backgrounds and are non-English speaking, making communication difficult. Additionally, older adults from other cultures may find that physicians don’t understand their health-based cultural customs and beliefs.
  • Vision and hearing impairments: Vision and hearing impairments can also make having conversations with the health team and accessing written materials difficult.
  • Mistrust: Many older adults, especially those from marginalized communities, experience medical mistrust rooted in long histories of health disparities and poor treatment, which may make them less likely to engage with and learn more about healthcare.

Tips for Improving Health Literacy

Improving health literacy in older adults is an ongoing process that involves both individuals and healthcare organizations. It’s important to remember that many of the above barriers are systemic, and require the earnest work of healthcare organizations—from making materials more consumer friendly, learning cultural competence and improving health access in rural areas—to achieve better quality care.

Here are some practical tips to help older adults improve their health literacy:

  • Ask questions: Don't hesitate to ask your healthcare provider questions about your condition, treatment options and any concerns you may have. Even if you feel you are lacking in knowledge and confidence, beginning the conversation is the first step to clearer understanding. Be sure to ask the provider to explain terms you don’t understand.
  • Keep an updated health record: Maintain an up-to-date record of your medical history, medications, allergies and any treatments you've received. This will help you keep track of your health and provide accurate information to healthcare professionals, making communication on both sides easier.
  • Seek out consumer resources: The doctor’s office may be full of jargon, but there are more consumer-friendly resources out there which explain important information is much more basic, understandable terms. Libraries and senior centers are great sources of information, and there are many great health articles online, including the Benajmin Rose Resource Library! Just be sure to verify that the information comes from a trustworthy source and that you fact check anything you’re unsure about.
  • Participate in screenings and check-ups: Regular screenings and check-ups can help detect potential health issues early. Most community health fairs and screenings are targeted towards the general public and use much more understandable language and resources. These can be a great source of information and continued learning!
  • Engage in health literacy programs: Participate in health literacy workshops or programs that aim to enhance your understanding of medical terminology, health resources and navigating the healthcare system.
  • Enlist a support system: Involve a trusted caregiver, family member or friend in working through health-related information and helping you keep track of important medical details.