The Importance of Improving Health Literacy

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ability of someone to attain, comprehend and process information about health and services that then allows this person to make proper decisions related to their health. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy has found that over a third of adult Americans have a difficult time comprehending the most basic medical information. If people are unable to understand this information, then it makes it extremely difficult for them to make good health decisions and it can also lead to errors in medication use, people misunderstanding their treatment regimen or diagnosis, and poor health altogether.

Health literacy in older adults

One population that is at higher risks of poor health outcomes due to low health literacy levels are older adults. They require trustworthy health information in order to avoid and cope with disease, as well as to maintain their health status. Due to the natural aging process, many older adults lack sufficient health literacy levels, which can decrease their ability to apply health information and understand health messages.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy explains the following about the health literacy skills of older adults:

  • 71% of adults over the age of 60 had trouble using print materials
  • 80% had trouble using health documents, which included charts and forms
  • 68% had trouble interpreting numbers

Older adults use more medical services and get more chronic diseases than any other population segments. Because of this, something needs to be done to improve their health literacy levels.

What can be done?

To improve the health literacy levels of older adults, several strategies can be employed, including:

  • Use plain language
  • Communicate procedures and advice that must be followed
  • Repeat important information
  • Decrease the amount of text provided in health messages
  • Use reminders to help with memory
  • Make information empowering and from a trusted source


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011, August 22). Older adults: Why is health literacy important? Retrieved from

Koay, K., Schofield, P., & Jefford, M. (2012). Importance of health literacy in oncology. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Oncology, 8(1), 14-23.

Understanding health literacy: Why it is so important and what librarians can do to help. Retrieved from

-Brendan v


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