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Be active to improve your health IQ

Being literate means you understand things. You take in information, think – hopefully – and make choices.

If you’re buying a car or a house, or sending your kids to college, you want to learn everything you can so you can make the right decision. The same is true when it comes to your health.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. From reading a prescription bottle to choosing the right doctor, from deciding whether to get chemo or surgery, it’s obvious that the more “health literate” you are, the better choice you’ll make.

That’s why, when we have a difficult health question, we often ask advice from others who we think are “smarter” or have more knowledge than we do.

As we get older, our health literacy declines. Why? Perhaps because as we age our cognitive abilities decline with us. Some think it might be because we don’t engage in work, so we become less used to making decisions.

In any case, improving our health literacy is important. Just like we pay attention to diet and exercise, we should and we must pay attention to what will improve our health literacy.

A recent article published in the British Medical Journal shows us exactly how to do this – and it’s easier than you think.

Starting in 2004, more than 4,000 men and women 50 years old and older were interviewed every year or two and asked basic health-literacy questions. They were given a comprehensive test of a medical label – a prescriptionlike bottle with sample instructions about how and when to take the “medication,” what to avoid, etc.

The researchers tracked who answered correctly and who didn’t, and correlated that with things those individuals did.

Right up at the top, it turned out that those who surfed the Web were more health literate. But other activities improved health IQ score, too, such as:

• Going to movies, the theater or museums.

• Going to the gym or doing yoga.

• Being part of a neighborhood association, doing charitable work and (can you believe it?) being engaged in politics.

The more people were engaged with life, the better their health smarts. Do you see a pattern here? It’s active learning vs. passive learning.

Passive is watching TV and “vegging out.” We all need that at times, but if that’s all we do, then we dumb down our minds.

The activities noted above are more engaging; they require us to think. I’m not saying that every Web search is a smart one – far from it – but it’s part of exercising the mind.

My spin: Get off the couch and do something with others. Maintaining a socially engaged life is good for your health IQ.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at