FRIDAY, March 16, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Being unable to read and understand basic health information might have a deadly outcome for older people, new research reveals.
The study included nearly 8,000 adults in England, aged 52 and older, who completed a test of functional health literacy -- the ability to use reading skills to understand health-related information. Specifically, the test assessed a person's understanding of written instructions for taking aspirin. About one-third of the participants could not completely understand the instructions, demonstrating poor health literacy.
The tests were administered in 2004-2005, and deaths among the participants were monitored until October 2009. During that follow-up period, there were a total of 621 deaths: 321 (6 percent) in the group of people who had high scores on the health literacy test; 143 (9 percent) in the group with medium scores; and 157 (16 percent) in the group with low health literacy scores.
Compared to people with the highest scores, those with the lowest health literacy scores were more than twice as likely to die within five years. The investigators found that other factors, such as differences in age, general health and economic status, accounted for less than half of the increase in risk.
Even after adjusting for different levels of mental function among the participants, low levels of health literacy was a significant predictor of death during the study period, according to the findings published online March 16 in the BMJ.
The study authors, research associate Sophie Bostock and Andrew Steptoe, professor of psychology at University College London, noted in a journal news release that the findings serve as a reminder for health care professionals to use effective communication techniques for patients with low health literacy.
While the study uncovered an association between health literacy and death risk, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Previous studies have found that low health literacy is associated with less knowledge of chronic diseases, poorer mental and physical health, less use of preventive health services and higher rates of hospital admission, according to background information in the report.
The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has more about health literacy.