Illiteracy in the Old

By Scott LaFee

January 16, 2019 7 min read

Roughly 90 percent of Americans age 65 and older use prescription drugs, with an average 20 prescriptions filled annually. That means reading a lot of directions, from tiny paper packets found in boxed drugs to labels on bottles.

For many older Americans, it's a challenge — perhaps dangerously so. According to a 2006 survey, roughly half of American adults have intermediate health literacy: They can look at health information and sufficiently, safely interpret it. But 20 percent have only "basic" health literacy, which can lead to problems, and 14 percent are "below basic," which means they're unlikely to be able to fully understand written health information, such as complex dosages or dense text.

Researchers say these numbers have not improved in recent years and may be getting worse with the increasing complexity of modern health care and progressive cognitive decline associated with an aging population. Experts have called for a concerted effort by health care providers to write in clearer, simpler terms, but the greater responsibility still rests with family, friends and caregivers to serve as interpreters.

Body of Knowledge

Recent magnetic resonance imaging studies suggest that all of a person's neural connections have formed by age 3.

Get Me That, Stat!

According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the greater the percentage of smokers in a peer group, the greater the chance a non-smoker will become a smoker. For example, if the share of smokers in a group rises to 30 percent from 20 percent, the probability of a person becoming a smoker increases 25 percent.


40-50: Percentage of smokers who try to quit each year

5: Percentage who succeed

Source: Nicotine & Tobacco Research

Doc Talk

A "Hasselhoff" is an emergency room patient whose injuries are the result of bizarre circumstances. The name refers to former "Baywatch" actor David Hasselhoff, who suffered a freak injury in 2006 when he hit his head on a chandelier while shaving. The broken glass severed four tendons as well as an artery in his right arm, which required immediate surgery.

Mania of the Week

Habromania: A form of insanity characterized by delusions of a pleasing nature

Number Cruncher

A Wendy's Avocado Bacon Supreme sandwich (100 grams) contains 607 calories, 216 from fat. It has 24 grams of total fat, or 37 percent of the recommended total fat intake for a 2,000-calorie daily diet, according to the Calorie Count database.

It also contains 1,687 milligrams of sodium (70 percent); 66 grams of total carbohydrates (22 percent); 12 grams of sugar; and 32 grams of protein.

Never Say "Diet"

The Major League Eating record for beef tri-tip is 4 pounds, 11 ounces in 12 minutes, held by Hall Hunt. His winning tip: Tri more.

Best Medicine

Guy No. 1: "Last week, I got eczema, diarrhea, gonorrhea and hemorrhoids."

Guy No. 2: "My god. Why are you smiling?"

Guy No. 1: "It's the first time I've ever won a game of Scrabble."


"Reality is something you rise above." — American actress and singer Liza Minnelli

Medical History

This week in 1794, Elizabeth Hog Bennett became the first woman in the U.S. to successfully give birth to a child by Cesarean section. Her husband, Dr. Jessee Bennett of Edom, Virginia, performed the operation, though he had no anesthetic to give his wife. Another local doctor Bennett asked to assist declined, citing excessive risk. In his place, Bennett enlisted the help of two field hands to hold the mother on a wooden table. Though the operation was the first of its kind in the U.S., the history of the Cesarean operation has been traced as far back as ancient Chinese etchings. Roman law under Julius Caesar decreed that all women who were dead or dying must be cut open to save the child.


Q: Why does orange juice taste bad immediately after brushing one's teeth?

A: It's not just orange juice. Chemicals in toothpaste — most notably, sodium lauryl ether sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate (used to make toothpaste foam) —suppress receptors on taste buds that perceive sweetness. They also break down phospholipids on the tongue that usually inhibit bitterness. Thus, for a brief moment after brushing, your ability to taste sweetness is diminished while your ability to detect bitterness is heightened.

Sum Body

Three things you may not know about your body:

1. Itchiness comes from your brain. It's the product of nerve cells communicating with each other.

2. Goose bumps are useless. Long ago, when we were a hairier species, goose bumps helped our ancestors' hair stand on end, which boosted its warming properties in cold weather and made folks look larger and thus scarier in threatening situations. With less hair these days, goose bumps don't do so much when we're cold and scared.

3. Blushing is part of the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline speeds up heart rate and dilates blood vessels to improve blood flow (making it easier to fight or flee). That includes vessels in your face. A 2013 study suggests blushing is an evolutionary trait. Dutch psychologists found that humans are more likely to forgive other humans who blush when admitting errors, and humans who blush are regarded as more likable and trustworthy.

Medical Myths

It's a myth that yawning helps wake us up by raising oxygen levels in the bloodstream. The purpose of a yawn is, in fact, to help regulate the temperature of our brains. Stretching our mouths wide to yawn boosts blood flow to the skull, and the cool air we breathe in reduces the temperature of that blood flow. We yawn when we're sleepy because the body is warmest when we are falling asleep and when we are first waking up. As we fall asleep, our body temperature drops; yawning helps quicken the process.


"She always said her feet were killing her

But nobody believed her." — Margaret Daniel's headstone at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia

To find out more about Scott LaFee and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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