Understanding and being able to use health information is key for all of us to be able to make informed decisions about our health and follow through on prescribed regimes.

This ability is referred to as health literacy.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy has been defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

It is much more than the reading, writing and arithmetic skills we learned as kids.

It involves the ability to listen, follow directions, fill out forms, do math calculations and interact with professionals and health care settings all while possibly dealing with the "white coat syndrome" and the many emotions that accompany us when we visit the doctor.

It also includes the ability to "translate" medical jargon into terms we can understand and knowing when to say "I don't understand."

Many things affect health literacy.

It is not only our own knowledge and skills, but also the communication skills of health-care professionals.

Anyone can have low health literacy; in fact, most of us experience difficulty understanding health information at some point in our lives.

Why is health literacy important?

Health outcomes are related to health literacy.

If you don't understand the information you are receiving, it is difficult to make the best choices or follow through on necessary actions.

Not understanding can lead to errors that may affect your health status.

What other things affect health literacy?

Health literacy can also be affected by health conditions such as visual and hearing impairments, difficulty remembering or cognitive functioning, stress, fatigue, depression and medications. While these conditions are present in individuals of all ages, they can especially be a problem for older adults.

What can I do if I have difficulty remembering what the doctor says?

Making a list of questions and taking notes at the doctor's visit and/or taking someone with you can be very helpful. Otsego County residents may call the Office for the Aging at 547-4232 or 432-9041 to get a copy of the Really Smart Patient handbook to help you keep track of all your medical information. Ask your doctor or other medical provider to speak slowly, repeat things back so that you are sure you have a clear understanding, and ask for information in writing.

If you think it may be helpful for family and or friends to be able to speak directly to your health-care provider, make sure you have given permission to your health-care provider to do so.

What if I'm having trouble seeing?

Tell your health-care provider. Arrange for a low-vision exam (call the Office for the Aging if you need help setting up a low-

vision exam). Ask your health-care provider if it is possible to have printed materials enlarged and the contrast heightened. Keep a magnifier with you for that small print that seems to be everywhere these days.

How about hearing?

Tell your health-care provider. You may want to schedule a hearing exam. Remember hearing aides can be expensive and Medicare and most insurances do not cover their cost. There are other things you can do. Ask everyone you are speaking with to speak clearly and distinctly. Limit background noise. Have the person speaking to you look directly at you. Ask them not to block their month, chew gum or eat food when speaking with you. Ask for written information. Repeat what you think you heard to see if it is correct. Hearing the wrong thing can cause big problems. We recently heard of a man who was advised to take an over-the-counter pain medication every four hours. e thought he heard take it every 40 minutes. Thankfully this error was caught quickly before it caused any major harm.

What can I do to keep my health literacy and other activities at their best?

The brain and the body benefit from exercise. Keep active with both mental and physical activities that are challenging. Keep involved with existing interests and find new ones. Maintain and nurture your support network. Research has shown that good support networks can improve health. Leave any reluctance to ask questions of your health-care provider at home. Remember asking questions shows that you are an interested, concerned individual. Otsego County residents may request a copy of the National Institute on Aging's publications "Talking With Your Doctor: A Guide for Older People" and "Choosing a Doctor" by calling the Office for the Aging at 547-4232 or 432-9041. It is also available to download or order on its website at www.nia.nih.gov.

The information for this article was taken from "Quick Guide to Health Literacy and Older Adults" by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. The guide and numerous resource links can be viewed at www.hhs.gov.

Frances Wright is director of the Otsego County Office for the Aging.

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