Older people can maintain their health literacy skills by regularly using the internet and participating in leisure and cultural activities, new research suggests.
Health literacy is defined as the ability to obtain, read, understand and use healthcare information to make the right health decisions.
Researchers analysed the health literacy skills of around 4,500 people over the age of 52 who were participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) between 2004 and 2007.
Every two years, they gathered data on how often participants used the internet and engaged in cultural, civic or leisure activities, while health literacy was assessed twice over the course of the study – once in 2004-05 and once in 2010-11 – with the help of a reading comprehension test.
The first assessment in 2004-05 found that nearly three quarters of people (73%) were adequately health literate.
One in five participants (19%) was found to have lower health literacy scores six years later, irrespective of how they performed in the first test, and a similar number had improved.
People who were non-white, came from a poorer background, had little education and struggled to carry out everyday activities were found to be more likely to have suffered a drop in health literacy, the researchers found.
Those who already had a poor memory at the beginning of the study also tended to experience a greater decline in health literacy.
Two in five participants (40%) said they never used the internet, compared with one in three (32%) who did so regularly.
Just over one in three said they regularly carried out civic activities (35%), just under a third (31%) engaged in leisure activities, and nearly four in 10 (39%) regularly went to the cinema, theatre, or cultural events.
Those who regularly used the internet or engaged in civic, leisure, or cultural activities were less likely to see their health literacy decline, the study found.
Once the researchers took into account influencing factors, they found that only regular internet use and cultural activities had a significant effect on health literacy.
The research has been published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.