Poor literacy increases mortality risk for over-50s

  • Date: 23 March 2012

OLDER people who have difficulty reading and understanding basic health information may be at an increased risk of death, according to a new UK study.

Researchers from University College London found one in three older people had some level of difficulty with basic health literacy. The authors said the findings underline the need for clear communication in an ageing population where patients are expected to play an increasing role in managing their care.

The UCL team monitored 7,828 people aged over 52 for five years and assessed their ability to acquire, process and understand basic health information. Participants completed a test of functional health literacy, which assessed understanding of written instructions for taking an aspirin tablet.

During that period, a total of 621 participants died and the study found mortality increased as health literacy decreased. The group classed as having high literacy skills had a six per cent death rate while the rate in the medium group was nine per cent, rising to 16 per cent for the low literacy group.

After accounting for factors such as health behaviours, socio-economic issues and cognitive ability, researchers concluded that people with low health literacy were 26 per cent more likely to die than those with high health literacy.

Low health literacy is associated with less knowledge of chronic diseases, poorer mental and physical health, limited use of preventive services, and higher rates of admissions to hospital.

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