Other Conditions

Older adults often experience challenges related to managing multiple chronic conditions and changes in vision and hearing. Some older adults may experience cognitive impairments as they age. This collection of selected research examines the problem of low health literacy and its influence on older adults’ abilities to manage health conditions or medication regimens. Access ‘Talking with Your Older Patientexternal icon to learn more.


Federman and colleagues (2013)external iconexternal icon assessed measures of asthma control, health resource use, and quality of life among older adults who had been diagnosed with asthma by a doctor. Approximately 158 (35%) of the 452 study participants had low health literacy. In addition, this subgroup was more often older (70 and above), Hispanic, reported low income and educational attainment, had fair or poor health, and a history of intubation. About 9% reported an asthma-associated hospitalization while 23% reported an asthma-associated visit to the emergency department. Findings suggest that older adults who have asthma and low health literacy may be more vulnerable to emergency care and hospitalizations.


To design a patient-centered HIV management intervention for African American adults, Gakumo and colleagues (2015)external iconexternal icon interviewed 20 patients receiving care at the clinic where the program would be delivered. Participants’ average age was 55 years. Interviewers asked participants about the types of things they wanted to learn about HIV and to describe their preferred learning style. Four themes emerged from the interviews: keep health information simple, use a team-based approach that includes a facilitator living with HIV, tailor to individual needs, and account for level of experience and interest in technology. Findings support the health literacy principle of keeping health messages and instructions simple to avoid overwhelming participants with too much information and to reduce the risk of disengaging them from their care. Use of self-management programsexternal iconexternal icon may also help participants become more knowledgeable and involved in their healthcare decision-making.

Medication information

2014 studyexternal iconexternal icon examined 48 patient information materials on heart disease and type 2 diabetes to identify relevant information for older adults. Researchers found most of the materials were written at a high reading level and the font size on most of the materials was too small for ease of reading. Also, few materials described side effects specific to older adults and when they did it was rarely broken down by age group (over 65, over 80). Health professionals, such as pharmacists, can help older adults review these types of materials to ensure older adults understand how the medication may affect them.

Patient Medical History Form showing multiple medical conditions

Low health literacy can affect a person's ability to manage a health condition or medication regimen.

Martin and colleagues (2012)external iconexternal icon provided 20 participants of an adult day center with a personalized, illustrated medication schedule and six weeks later re-assessed how confident they felt managing their medications. Findings demonstrate a significant increase in self-efficacy and medication adherence after using the illustrated medication cards. Participants also reported the design of the medication cards helped them remember what each medicine was for and what time to take the medicine. Working with older adults, health professionals can reinforce medication adherence using images and plain language principlesexternal iconexternal icon.

In a 2012 studyexternal iconexternal icon on medication adherence, researchers divided older adult participants in two groups. The first received usual care, while the second received health topic-specific materials and education from the clinic pharmacist over 9 months. Additionally the pharmacist communicated with clinic doctors and nurses about any relevant medication issues. The authors found that, for patients who had low health literacy, medication adherence was significantly higher among those who received the pharmacist intervention than those who received usual care. This suggests that a tailored approach for patients with low health literacy can improve important health outcomes such as medication safety.

Multiple medical conditions

In 2020, findings from UnitedHealth Group (UHG) research illustrated the importance of increasing health literacy as a key component in driving better health outcomes and improving health care affordability among older adults. Seniors—who use more health care services, have more chronic conditions, and take more medications compared to other age groups—benefit from increased health literacy levels because it helps them make informed decisions and enhances their health care experience. UHG reports their findings in Improving Health Literacy Could Prevent Nearly 1 Million Hospital Visits and Save Over $25 Billion a Yearpdf iconexternal iconpdf iconexternal icon. In a separate two-pagerpdf iconexternal iconpdf iconexternal icon, they describe their methodology and list their citations.


Page last reviewed: August 30, 2021