How low health literacy, technology leave elderly behind

The Internet is quickly becoming the go-to place for health information, but those who are not well-versed in understanding health matters, and especially those who are elderly, are being left behind, according to a recent study.

The study, led by Helen Levy of the University of Michigan, examines elderly people's knowledge of health matters and how they use the Internet, according to an announcement. The findings are published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.  

The researchers looked at data from the 2009 and 2010 Health and Retirement Study, a national survey of Americans 65 years and older. That study looked at how the 1,400 participants used the Internet and what they search for, especially related to health and medical information.

Levy's study finds that about 32 percent of older participants who are well versed in health matters use the Internet, while that number is 9.7 percent for people who have low health literacy.

Of the older participants who are Internet users, their health literacy has an impact on whether they use the Web to find medical information. Health literacy, the authors say, has more of an impact on Internet use for medical information than cognitive function.

"Health information technology, like any innovation in healthcare, offers both the promise of significant benefits and the risk that these benefits will not be shared equally," Levy says in the announcement.

The authors suggest interventions that target health literacy among Internet-using older adults, which may help narrow the digital divide by facilitating their ability to obtain medical information online. And even without interventions, screening for low literacy in the clinical setting can help identify patients who might have a hard time using electronic health tech, they add.

Another study, in September 2013, found a shockingly low understanding of some common terms used to talk with patients about prostate health. In the study of 109 low-income patients, only 15 percent of participants understood the meaning of "incontinence" and only 29 percent understood the term "urinary function."

Overall eHealth usage by U.S. adults is low, with only about 19 percent of adults engaging in activities like emailing providers; 19 percent tracking their health information online; and 17.6 percent buying medicine online, according to a June study published at the Journal of Medical Internet Research. Adults between the ages of 18 and 34 had more than twice the odds of engaging in online provider searches compared to the oldest group, ages 65 years and older, the study found

To learn more:
- check out the study
- read the announcement

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