Low Literacy in Adults Poses Serious Health Risks

We have always known that adult literacy is an important factor in determining economic status, independence and self esteem, but does reading ability actually provide health benefits? Apparently so, according to a British study that finds that elderly adults with low literacy skills are twice as likely to die within a five-year period as their peers with no literacy problems.

The study, conducted by researchers from University College London, “tested nearly 8,000 adults on their understanding of aspirin instructions” (BBC). The participants who had difficulty understanding the instructions had a significantly higher mortality rate over the next five years, with 16% of the lowest-scoring group passing away. Only 6% of the adults who had fully understood the instructions died within that time period.

According to the BBC article: “When researchers adjusted for factors such as wealth, education, income, ethnicity and basic health, the link between low healthy literacy and mortality risk reduced, ‘but remained significant.’”

The results make sense — people with good reading skills are more likely to read and understand instructions pertaining to dosages, side effects and warning labels, allowing them to make more informed choices relating to their health. Another important point this study brings up is that we need to make sure that labels and instructions that come with medicines are written in simple, clear language that an elderly person or non-native English speaker can understand.

Aside from understanding information directly pertaining to health, good literacy skills and habitual reading have been shown to provide a host of mental and physical benefits. Time magazine states, “reading and playing board games or a musical instrument [has been] associated with a decreased risk of Alzeheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Intriguingly, those with the strongest habits demonstrated the greatest benefits.”

And while reading can’t exactly be called “exercise,” sitting down with a good book — or even a magazine — will allow you to burn about 30 more calories per hour than you would watching TV.

Aside from the physical benefits of reading, strong literacy skills provide self-esteem boosts and confidence. “If you can read well, you can do anything,” is a phrase my mother repeated countless times as she pushed books into my hands throughout my childhood. And while I’m sure she had more lofty goals in mind for me — maybe becoming a business mogul or best-selling novelist — it sure does help to be able to read the instructions on the aspirin bottle.

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Photo credit: bartificial


Debbie L.
Debbie Lim4 years ago

Reading lets you understand and learn many things that help you live longer.

Craig Gosling
Craig Gosling4 years ago

Low literacy also promotes a fundamentalist - evangelical belief in bible miracle stories and a theocratic type of government.

jayasri amma
jayasri amma4 years ago

Literacy is in great danger. Too much technology and people cannot read

jayasri amma
jayasri amma4 years ago

Literacy is in great danger. Too much technology and people cannot read

jayasri amma
jayasri amma4 years ago

Literacy is in great danger. Too much technology and people cannot read

Juliet D.
judith sanders4 years ago

Personally, I think that if you can't read the label on a bottle of pediatric tylenol and correctly calculate the dosage, you shouldn't be a parent.

Also, -dumbest poll ever.

Marie W.
Marie W.4 years ago

Literacy is in great danger. Too much technology and people cannot read.

Past Member
Past Member 4 years ago

Actually, this is an issue that has come up often when I was doing ESL with adult immigrants. It's scary when you can't tell exactly what the instructions say on your bottle.

Mary D.
Mary D.4 years ago

Another factor is the size of the fonts used to print the instructions. I am totally literate, but mad a fairly serious error regarding the dosage instructions of a potent antibiotic. The print was so small that even with my reading glasses, I couldn't quite pick out the words. I can only imagine how difficult this would be for someone who is elderly and has poor reading skills to start with. Larger type on the instructions could actually aid in proper compliance with dosing instructions, side effect and the like.

Sue M.
Sue Magee4 years ago

Interesting to think that reading ability can provide health benefits!