Due in part to increasing Internet use by agencies, medical clinics, and users of all age groups, there is a new wealth of health information available. In an era when focus on self-management of health has increased, it is important to understand how seeking information contributes to the health and well-being of older adults.
A forthcoming article presents findings based on an interview study with a group of healthy Canadian older adults who regularly seek out health and nutrition information independently. Based on these interviews, the authors argue that the prevalence of health information can be both empowering and disabling. This suggests that health literacy skills should be an important component of improving health and wellness among older adults.
The researchers recruited older adults at health clinics, other community settings, and by word of mouth. All participants were between the ages of 55 and 70 in good health, fluent English speakers, and older adults who actively and independently sought out health information regularly. Fifteen of the twenty participants were women, and the overall education level of the sample was high, with 16 of the participants reporting some college education. The researchers asked the participants to describe their experiences in seeking out health information.
The authors detailed three dominant themes in their findings. The first was “information-seeking behaviors as enabling.” Participants reported having a sense that there is a high degree of accessible health information, often contrasting the current state of health information with that of their youth or of their parents’ generation. Many cited the Internet as a dominant factor in the availability of health information. Along this theme, participants reported having new concepts and resources available to them due to their information seeking.
The second theme was “information-seeking behaviors as disabling.” Participants reported that the sheer mass of health information available online and elsewhere can be overwhelming. Information that is confusing, conflicting, or gathered across different sources is difficult to implement and often counter-productive. There is also some bad, misleading health information and dishonest marketing. Many participants reported distress and anxiety in trying to use health information productively.
The third theme involved the uncovering of “information-seeking behaviors [that] enhance perception of comfort.” Participants reported that having health information readily accessible to them adds to a feeling of control. Along this theme, health information is a resource that enhances quality of life and fosters healthy aging.
Taking these three themes into consideration, it seems that the proliferation of health information (due to the Internet and media) has a major influence on how individuals work to age healthily. At the same time, the overwhelming number of often-contradictory sources is a source of anxiety, and likely a source of misinformed decision-making. Because of this, it appears that more research and education on health literacy is an important way to encourage healthy aging.