October is National Health Literacy Month

Health Literacy Month started in 1999 to spread awareness about the value of understandable health information for everyone. 

Since then, it has become a worldwide month-long event, with a growing number of organizations advocating for this important cause.

What Is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is the extent a person has to “obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” [1]

Health Literacy - Health Literacy Hero Infographic
Source: becker.wustl.edu

This ability can be affected by several aspects ranging from personal to systemic ones, such as:

  • The capability of both professional and non-professionals to effectively communicate and share information.
  • Awareness or expertise of health topics on the part of patient and provider.
  • Societal and cultural influences.
  • Demands of both health care and public health structures.
  • The urgency or need of the person’s situation.

Moreover, health literacy plays a significant role in any stage of life. It can directly influence a person’s ability to:

  • Comprehend analytical concepts like probability and risk
  • Become involved in self-care and management of chronic diseases
  • Exchange personal information and health history with health care professionals
  • Navigate through the health care system, complete complicated forms, find providers, etc.

Factors That Affect Health Literacy

Several factors can affect an individual’s ability to become more health literate. It takes several skills, including math, basic literacy, and knowledge of health subjects.

  • Math and Literacy: Numerical skills are necessary for everyday care, like assessing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, counting prescriptions, and discerning nutrition labels. Likewise, they are essential for comparing health care plans and medication costs, as well as calculating different premiums, copays, and deductibles.
  • Health topics: A lack of understanding or general misinformation about the body or causes of disease can significantly contribute to poor health literacy. Furthermore, without knowledge about particular topics, an individual may not recognize the correlation between poor lifestyle choices and the impact on their health.

Even with these skills, some may still find health literacy a challenge. This struggle is due in part to an accelerated change in medicine, science, and the evolving health care field. 

Health Literacy - Older Couple Talking To Nurse
Source: aginginplace.org

For older adults especially, this progression may clash with information learned in school that has since become outdated, debunked, or forgotten.

Additionally, if a person sitting in a doctor’s office feels uncomfortable, they may be less likely to share their medical history or other information.

The Importance Of Health Literacy

Health literacy is the foundation of living better and enjoying a higher quality of life. 

On the other hand, lower literacy negatively affects the outcome of one’s health, such as: 

  • Not using preventative services such as flu shots and mammograms and more often only using health services once they are sicker.
  • A higher likelihood of developing a chronic condition and lacking the knowledge about it, including how to manage it.
  • Higher rate of preventable hospitalization.
  • More feelings of shame or embarrassment for literacy levels, which can have a significant psychological effect.

    Health Literacy - Elderly Woman And Nurse Discussing Medication
    Source: mwhealth.org

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, just 12% of adults are proficient, while 14% are believed to fall below basic health literacy.

A 1993 study showed 42% of those with limited health literacy described having poor health, and 28% did not have health insurance. [2]



Who Is At Risk?

Groups that are more at risk for lower rates of health literacy include:

  • Older adults
  • Minorities
  • Those with lower levels of education
  • Those who are low-income
  • Non-native English speakers
  • Those with a compromised health status
  • Those with limited access to resources or support

Health Literacy And Older Adults

The care seniors receive can be influenced by communication challenges for them, as well as their caregivers. 

Aging, in particular, brings many changes, one of which is one’s health needs. Whether dealing with chronic disease, handling prescriptions, discussing health concerns with health providers or caregivers, health literacy is a vital part of easing seniors through these changes.

Patient-centered care is a useful tool for promoting a healthy flow of information between both parties. 

Source: blog.medicalgps.com

Similarly, caregivers and health professionals can improve communication by creating an environment where seniors are more willing to share personal information.

Likewise, keep in mind that the method of communication can affect older adults’ health literacy. For example, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy:

  • 71% struggled using print materials
  • 68% found it difficult to understand numbers and perform calculations
  • 80% had trouble using forms for charts

In addition, seniors face other communication challenges, including cognitive, visual, and hearing difficulties:

  • Cognitive: The speed at which thoughts are processed, greater distractibility, and reduced working memory all affect how seniors receive information. Pamphlets, repeating crucial information, speaking plainly, and focusing on the gist of the topic can greatly help.
  • Visual: Many seniors have issues with vision, so creating easier-to-read large-print forms with less text may help older adults read and retain information easier.
  • Hearing: Hearing loss is also a common problem. In order to improve information delivery, patients and providers must speak face-to-face, articulate clearly, and eliminate background noise.

Who Is Responsible For Health Literacy?

Health Literacy - Senior Woman Discussing Health With Doctor
Source: blog.episcopalretirement.com

Health professionals, together with health care systems, can develop ways to encourage better health literacy for the public. 

Additionally, ensuring that information and services are easier to understand and used by everyone, coupled with better access to resources, will go a long way. 

In addition to those working in the health care field, adult educators can also help individuals with restricted literacy skills.

How MeetCaregivers Can Help

If you or a loved one requires extra assistance, reach out to MeetCaregivers. Our qualified professionals can help with day-to-day routines, mobility, and more.

So call us at (888) 541-1136 or for general inquiries, message us at info@

Lastly, be sure to check out the Blog for more resources about caregiving and senior living.


[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000. Healthy People 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Originally developed for Ratzan SC, Parker RM. 2000. Introduction. In National Library of Medicine Current Bibliographies in Medicine: Health Literacy. Selden CR, Zorn M, Ratzan SC, Parker RM, Editors. NLM Pub. No. CBM 2000-1. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[2] Kirsch IS, Jungeblut A, Jenkins L, Kolstad A. 1993. Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education.

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