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Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.
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(Photo: Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock)

If there’s one skill you don’t want to lose as you get older, it’s the ability to read and understand a medicine bottle label. So whatever you do, don’t stop going to concerts or the theater.

Granted, that sounds like a non sequitur. But, strangely enough, it isn’t.

A new British study of people age 50 and older finds a link between health literacy—defined as “the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information”—and two specific behaviors: Regular use of the Internet, and participation in cultural activities.

“Loss of health literacy skills during aging is not inevitable,” a research team led by Lindsay Kobayashi of University College London writes in the Journal of Epidemiology and Health. “Internet use and engagement in various social activities, in particular cultural activities, appear to help older adults maintain the literary skills required to self-manage health.”

The study used data on 4,368 men and women age 50 or older who participated in the English Longitudinal Study on Aging. Their health literacy was measured two years after they joined the project, and again five years later, by having them read a fictitious medicine-bottle label and then answer four reading-comprehension questions.

While, by design, the study couldn’t prove cause and effect, the researchers found “consistent internet use and engagement in cultural activities, including attending the theater, cinema, art galleries, museums, concerts, or opera at least once a year” appeared to protect participants from a decline in health literacy.

Among regular Internet users, 88 percent did as well or better on the second health literacy test than they did in the first. Among habitual culture lovers, 87 percent did so. That places them well above people who never used the Internet (75 percent), or those who never attended cultural events (74 percent). The strongest protective association was found among people who engaged in both of those activities, as well as various civic and leisure pursuits.

The positive correlation with regular Internet usage isn’t surprising. As the researchers point out, logging on regularly can improve cognitive functions such as reasoning, provide emotional support via social networks, and directly improve medical knowledge by reading health-related articles.

The apparent positive influence of cultural activities isn’t so clear, but the researchers note it was independent of wealth, education, or having a longstanding illness. This indicates that participation in the arts is not simply a proxy for being in good health, or enjoying high sociological status.

Rather, they strongly suspect it involves retaining “fluid cognitive ability,” which was described in an earlier paper as “the ability to process and integrate information, act, and solve novel problems.”

“Fluid cognitive ability has been shown to decline in a non-pathological manner during aging beginning in mid-adulthood,” the researchers write, “and also to mostly explain low health literacy among older adults.”

“Cultural activities ... would most likely engage several fluid cognitive abilities, depending on the specific show or exhibit,” they point out.

In other words, if you keep your mind nimble and flexible by exposing yourself to new plays, paintings, or poems, you’re also more likely to fully understand and implement your doctor’s orders.

So don't let that museum membership lapse. If you can appreciate a Picasso, the proper dosage of a prescription painkiller should not present a problem.