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Literacy is a matter of life and death

This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Northwestern University.

Low Literacy Equals Early Death Sentence

CHICAGO — Not being able to read doesn’t just make it harder to navigate each day. Low literacy impairs people’s ability to obtain critical information about their health and can dramatically shorten their lives.

A new study from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine shows that older people with inadequate health literacy had a 50 percent higher mortality rate over five years than people with adequate reading skills. Inadequate or low health literacy is defined as the inability to read and comprehend basic health-related materials such as prescription bottles, doctor appointment slips and hospital forms.

Low health literacy was the top predictor of mortality after smoking, also surpassing income and years of education, the study showed. Most of the difference in mortality among people with inadequate literacy was due to higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease.

“It’s a matter of life or death,” said David Baker, M.D., lead author of the study and chief of general internal medicine at the Feinberg School and at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The excess number of deaths among people with low literacy was huge. The magnitude of this shocked us.”

“When patients can’t read, they are not able to do the things necessary to stay healthy,” Baker noted. “They don’t know how to take their medications correctly, they don’t understand when to seek medical care, and they don’t know how to care for their diseases. Baker thinks this is why they are much more likely to die.

The study was published in Archives of Internal Medicine July 23.

More than 75 million adults in the United States have only basic or below basic health literacy, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

“There is a certain minimum set of reading skills that are required to be able to do the things that you’re expected to do as a patient,” Baker said. “And if someone is below that level, bad things are going to happen.”

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