Abstract: Does the Internet Help Older Adults Improve their Experience with Health Information?

◆ Alberto Orellana-Campos, University of Wisconsin-Madison
◆ Hyesun Choung, University of Wisconsin-Madison
◆ Katheryn Christy, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Does the internet help older adults improve their experience with health information? An analysis of health information accessibility among US adults from 2007 to 2017

Americans are living longer. In 1900, the average life expectancy of Americans was 49 years. In 2013, it was 79, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. We may be living longer, but not necessarily in better health. Acute illnesses have morphed into chronic ones, and many older adults have multiple chronic conditions to manage and worry about. In addition, over the past 10 years, the population aged 65 and over increased from 37.2 million in 2006 to 49.2 million in 2016 (a 33% increase) and is projected to almost double to 98 million in 2060 (U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, 2017).

The elderly population, especially those living with chronic health conditions, has a greater need for health information. Digital technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. US older adults can now access health information via laptops, tablets, and mobile phones (Pew Research Center, 2013). Arguably, the amount of health information available to the general public, and ease of access to that information, have never been greater. Yet, not enough studies have tested the impact this increased accessibility and amount of information have had on the health literacy and health outcomes of US older adults. Therefore, this paper examines the evolution of information sources used, trust in those sources, health literacy, and self-reported overall health among older Americans between 2007 and 2017, with the goal of evaluating whether greater access to health information has benefited this segment of the population, or if it has instead exacerbated communication inequalities.

Adopting a longitudinal approach, this study analyzed data from the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) in 2007, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017 to identify communication inequalities faced by older adults in the United States and the potential role of the internet in helping older adults’ access to and understanding of health information.
Over time, we observed a consistent increase in reliance on the internet as a primary source of health information, particularly for those over 65. General health across all age groups did not significantly improve or worsen over time. Our study revealed a pattern of decreasing effort to access information and diminished feelings of frustration when looking for it among older adults. However, these findings do not necessarily indicate that older people are becoming more confident in accessing health information. Older groups (50+) consistently exhibit lower levels of confidence and greater difficulty understanding health information compared to the younger generation.

These findings suggest that the increased accessibility to online health information does not guarantee improved health literacy in older adults. Interventions aimed at older adults should consider improving their digital literacy to help them navigate a complex information landscape.