Low Literacy Increases Risk of Death

Picture: A senior woman reading

Reading seems to be important for
health of older people; © Hemera

In a study from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine low health literacy was the top predictor of mortality after smoking. Most of the difference in mortality among people with inadequate literacy was due to higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease.

"When patients can't read, they are not able to do the things necessary to stay healthy," David Baker, M.D., lead author of the study and chief of general internal medicine at the Feinberg School noted. "They don't know how to take their medications correctly, they don't understand when to seek medical care, and they don't know how to care for their diseases.” Baker thinks this is why they are much more likely to die.

The Northwestern study began in 1997 when research assistants interviewed 3,260 Medicare patients ages 65 and older. Researchers asked about participants' race/ethnicity, education, income, health behaviours (smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise) and chronic medical conditions (diabetes, asthma, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, depression).

Participants completed a test of health literacy that included reading passages and health-related materials such as pill bottles that required understanding numbers. Then, six years later, researchers determined which participants had died during the six years after being interviewed by matching their names against the National Death Index.

The results show a dramatic need for health care providers to find better ways to educate low literacy patients about their health. "We need to use plain language," Baker said. "We're not talking about dumbing down material. We're talking about using simple language the average person would understand." He'd like to vanquish medical jargon from doctor's language and educational health materials. One example is saying "sugar" instead of "glucose" when discussing diabetes.

MEDICA.de; Source: Northwestern University