Limited literacy in older people and disparities in health and healthcare access

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006 May;54(5):770-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2006.00691.x.


Objectives: To determine the relationship between health literacy, demographics, and access to health care.

Design: Cross-sectional study, Health, Aging and Body Composition data (1999/2000).

Setting: Memphis, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Participants: Two thousand five hundred twelve black and white community-dwelling older people who were well functioning at baseline (without functional difficulties or dementia).

Measurements: Participants' health literacy was assessed using the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine. Scores were categorized into 0 to sixth-, seventh- to eighth-, and ninth-grade and higher reading levels (limited health literacy defined as <9th grade). Participants' demographics, socioeconomic status, comorbidities, and three indicators of healthcare access (whether they had a doctor/regular place of medical care, an influenza vaccination within the year, or insurance for medications) were also assessed.

Results: Participants' mean age was 75.6, 52% were female, 38% were black, and 24% had limited health literacy. After adjusting for sociodemographics, associations remained between limited health literacy and being male, being black, and having low income and education, diabetes mellitus, depressive symptoms, and fair/poor self-rated health (P<.02). After adjusting for sociodemographics, health status, and comorbidities, older people with a sixth-grade reading level or lower were twice as likely to have any of the three indicators of poor healthcare access (odds ratio=1.96, 95% confidence interval=1.34-2.88).

Conclusion: Limited health literacy was prevalent and was associated with low socioeconomic status, comorbidities, and poor access to health care, suggesting that it may be an independent risk factor for health disparities in older people.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • African Continental Ancestry Group*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cohort Studies
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Demography
  • Educational Status*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group*
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Male