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Health in every word

If you are a struggling reader, you are more likely to experience poor health than a good reader. The ability to read is important for maintaining one’s health.

– Adults with weak reading skills experience more health-related problems than adults with satisfactory reading abilities. It appears that some miss out on important information because they are poor readers, says Kjersti Lundetræ.

In the article «Health in every word?» which the professors Kjersti Lundetræ and Egil Gabrielsen at the medical center have written together with GP Reidar Stokke, it appears that there is a connection between health and reading abilities. The article is based on data from an international survey on adult reading abilities, ALL (Adult literacy and life skills survey).

Weak readers have poor health
Experienced health can be about feeling pain: if one’s health inhibits everyday activities, if one feels physically drained or if emotional problems effect social relations.

– Other research shows that one’s own experience health is strongly related to actual health. It is, therefore, a reason to believe that adults with poor reading skills, as a group actually have poorer health than adults with good reading skills, explains Lundetræ.

The experience of poor health among poor readers increases with age. It peaks within older age groups (45–65 years) and hits lowest in young age groups (16–24 years).

– When young, your health is often quite good and unrelated to how well one takes care of it. It is, therefore, natural that the relationship between poor reading skills and poor health gets stronger the older you get. That’s when you start experiencing the consequences related to your lack of preventative care and unhealthy lifestyle, the researcher says. 

Compared with gender, age and income, reading abilities have the strongest relationship to experienced health. But the relationship exists only in regard to physical health. The results show no connection between reading abilities and mental health.

Increasingly more written health information
– Advice on nutrition, disease prevention diet and physical activity is conveyed increasingly through articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as online sources. We gain a lot of information through reading. We can imagine that some miss out on crucial health advice because they read poorly and seldom, Lundetræ explains.

A short visit to your GP is likely supplemented with written information, such as  brochures or medication attachments. How well we understand written health information, can determine how well we are able to maintain our health.

– Health-related texts are often complex. They contain many unfamiliar words and, they are also often poorly designed. Therefore, reading these types of source material becomes difficult for persons with poor reading skills. Texts in a genre you are not familiar with or unknown concepts are harder to understand. In meeting with such texts, adults who are poor readers become more vulnerable, Lundetræ says.

Debate on availability
An improvement in the reading skills of the population can conceivably improve people’s health. In the long run, this can have a favorable effect on the expenses of the Norwegian health system. Additionally the survey confirms the need to look closer at the design of written health information.

– A significant part of those who need this health information the most actually have lower reading abilities. There is a need for such texts to become more readable, by stripping them of advanced language or wordiness, and making them read clear and simple, Lundetræ concludes.

 Professor Kjersti Lundetræ