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Jun 29, 2018

Health Literacy is Critical to Heart Disease Prevention

An American Heart Association statement addresses health literacy as a barrier to heart health. 

Improving health literacy in the United States is critical to preventing heart disease—the leading killer of Americans—as highlighted in a recent statement from the American Heart Association.

The statement was recently published in the journal Circulation, with the goal of making a clear connection between health literacy and cardiovascular health.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual can process and understand basic health information. It’s extremely important when patients are making decisions related to their health or health care. While poor health literacy has been associated with poorer health, higher health care costs and increased risk of death, experts note that health literacy is especially important when it comes to heart health.

In their recent statement, authors note that health literacy should be viewed as a barrier to health, similar to health insurance and availability of care. It’s well established that not having insurance or living far from doctors’ offices can prevent patients from getting the care they need. Not understanding basic health information can act as a barrier to health care in the same way, according to authors.

For example, a patient may be told they have high blood pressure, which can increase risk for heart attack. They may also be prescribed medication to help control blood pressure and reduce risk for heart events.

However, if the patient doesn’t understand the severity of the condition and the importance of taking that medication, they may not end up getting the care they need. They could stop taking the medication altogether, leading to a continued increase in blood pressure and increased risk for heart attack. They could also take the medication but ignore other cardiovascular risk factors like a poor diet and inactivity, which can also lead to heart disease.

For patients with existing heart disease, the stakes are even higher. Patients who have suffered heart events or have existing heart disease are at even greater risk for future events. Thus, it’s important that they understand their condition along with ways to reduce that risk.

The impact of health literacy is huge, according to authors, when applied to the entire population. Low health literacy is also strongly associated with factors like cigarette smoking, obesity and diabetes, all of which increase risk for heart disease. Studies show that low health literacy leads to poorer health – including cardiovascular health.

To address this issue, experts recommend the use of a simple toolkit to improve health literacy among patients. The first steps involve forming a team to raise awareness for the impact of health literacy on heart health. Next, providers should use simple language when communicating with patients and incorporate pictures and materials for support. They should also consider things like language barriers and cultural customs and beliefs when creating treatment plans.

But perhaps most importantly, they should include patients in all aspects of their care. That means allowing patients to ask questions, addressing patient concerns, keeping them updated on progress, and linking them with tools that might help with treatment and follow-up.

Together, experts hope these steps will bring us one step closer to reaching the American Heart Association’s 2020 Impact Goal, which is to improve heart health by 20% for all Americans. Heart disease causes one in four deaths in the United States. Experts believe that increasing health literacy will help patients take control of their health and prevent heart disease.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How can I prevent heart disease?

  • The best ways to help prevent heart disease is by eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, quitting smoking (if a current smoker) and maintaining a healthy weight. Patients should also know their numbers, including blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, which are important to heart health.
  • How can patients improve their health literacy?

  • Patients can help to improve their health literacy by improving upon their general reading skills. As health information can still seem confusing at times, patients should be sure to ask their healthcare providers for help when necessary, such as asking them to use more plain language in explaining conditions or asking for a medical interpreter if their primary language is not English.

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