Reading is a skill most of us take for granted. When you see the front page of a newspaper or pull up your favorite health site, you probably don't even think about the fact that you're reading the words on the page. You just do it. But that ability doesn't come naturally. Reading is a skill built during childhood that allows us to communicate and learn about the world around us. The troubles that come from illiteracy extend far beyond not being able to read the latest bestsellers.
Most of Our Health Information Is Written Down
I've found it amazing to watch how rapidly information has moved from written to video form as digital technology has made it cheaper and easier to make films and put them online. You can find great videos online to help you figure out how to live your healthiest life. In fact, I pride myself on how accessible we make health information on The Dr. Oz Show. But so many important sources of health information are written down. If you can't read well, you start out with a major disadvantage when it comes to making healthy choices because you don't have access to the same information as everyone else. This is a problem that applies to all age groups and all demographics.
Good Reading Starts Early
So what else can you do to address health literacy? The first and most important step is to emphasizing the importance of reading to kids when they're young, which can go a long way to making them successful and healthy adults. Reading with your kids or with a person who has trouble reading to help them as they work through tough words can also make a big difference. It doesn't matter what you read, it just matters that you do.
It's Not Just About Being Able to Read
While reading is important for accessing information, it's also essential in learning how to interpret your own body and the health problems you face. This combination of knowledge and understanding of health is what we call "health literacy" in medicine and it's essential to good health. This about the last time you visited the doctor. Did you understand everything that was said during the visit? Did you know what you were supposed to do when you got home? Did you understand what was written on any forms you got? Did you know when to take your medications?
If the answer to any of those questions was no, you probably had a problem following the directions you needed to stay healthy. Now imagine how much worse this would be if you couldn't read. This is just one reason why people who have trouble reading and interpreting medical information are more likely to be hospitalized, to skip important prevention measures like mammograms or flu shots, and to have worse health overall.
Reading Problems May Resurface With Old Age
Problems with reading can happen in two ways: either a person struggled with reading from the start because they didn't learn how, or they lost the ability to read later in life. How can the ability to read get worse? In rare cases, a stroke can actually damage the areas of the brain that allow people to read. More commonly, though, it's an issue with eyesight. Many people have more and more trouble reading as they get older because their eyes change and may become damaged by diseases like diabetes or cataracts. That can translate into trouble reading labels on medication bottles or instructions from the doctor's office and can lead to disastrous consequences. If you've been having trouble reading fine print or understanding instructions about your health or medications, talk to your doctor. They can help you find solutions that may improve your eyesight and can also give you tools to make reading easier.
Don't Be Ashamed of Illiteracy
Think you don't know anyone who struggles with reading? Think again. Many people are ashamed of the trouble they have with reading and have figured out ways to hide their illiteracy from others. The best thing you can do is withhold judgment and do your best to help. That can mean donating books to kids in need, helping your own kids improve their reading skills, or working with adults who have trouble with reading so that they don't miss out on key information that could keep them healthy. Together, we can work to make sure that our society's written knowledge is available to everyone who needs it.