When we consider the social undercurrents that spawned competing science in plant-based vs. carnivore diets and vaccines vs. anti-vax thinking, it’s easy to see why each of us needs to examine health information more thoroughly if we’re going to draw helpful conclusions for ourselves.

With so much conflicting health data bombarding us every day, it’s also not difficult to understand why so many have tuned out the endless stream of information. Fake news, clickbait, and “scientific” studies spread across the internet like wildfire; however, tuning out all medical news can have real and negative implications for health and wellness in the long term.

American life expectancy has decreased for the third year in a row, and the cost of medical treatment continues to rise. The government’s failure to address these rising costs will likely bankrupt the Medicare system by 2026 if nothing changes. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to take ownership of improving our health literacy.

Health literacy is a self-education process that helps us not only recognize and avoid bad information, but also understand which information and lifestyle choices work for us as individuals. When you combine that with a tactical awareness of what health services are and are not at your disposal, consumers have a lot of power to get their health journey right. Strong health literacy draws from peer-reviewed research and scientific consensus, so it’s a tool that helps us develop scientifically sound approaches to our uniquely personal health needs

As such, increasing health literacy is one of the most important causes of our time.

What's Hindering Greater Health Literacy?

News and research that are rooted in fact can provide great insights that help us learn to improve our health, but health literacy is personal. What works for one person won't necessarily work for another. Oversimplified advice, such as “eat less and exercise more,” doesn’t address individual situations.

Factors like ancestry, genetic predispositions, or risks can alter the approach a person should take in his or her health journey. Growing research for DNA-based health approaches can help you decide whether to adopt a plant-based diet or paleo diet, choose whether to take B-12 supplements or fish oil, and know whether one approach to reducing cancer risk will be more effective than another.

To grasp and embrace the personal decisions that will impact your health, you must first learn what does and does not work for you. Understanding this can mean the difference between another abandoned New Year’s resolution and successfully adopting a new set of positive lifestyle changes.

We've found through our research that those who go beyond general, oversimplified approaches to health are more health-literate and live the most consistently healthy lifestyles. Their rates of major health issues and early mortality are drastically lower than the general population.

American Health Literacy Is More Important Than Ever

With the politicized national debate on healthcare still raging through election cycles, the future of healthcare in the U.S. remains somewhat uncertain. One of the only things that’s agreed upon is that healthcare costs need to be reduced.

Regardless of how these costs are addressed at the legislative level, one way to reduce long-term costs is to improve the health of the entire population so major incident rates decrease. To shift the model and reduce costs across the country, we need a public attitude shift toward proactive personal responsibility and public policies that reward healthy lifestyles.

In previous eras, when reading literacy was finally seen as a vehicle for upward mobility, attitudes around education policy shifted. It took a public groundswell to change the policy mindset. Child labor laws allowed more families to keep their kids in school and increase future earning potential.

A similar consumer policy approach can be taken with health literacy to solve a generation's health issues in advance so they don’t fester into societal flaws. Just as the push for reading literacy transformed societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, a focus on improved health literacy could hold the key to not only greater individual longevity, but also lower social costs.

According to our research, there's a strong correlation between states’ average health literacy and how much is spent on later-stage healthcare. For example, Tennessee had the lowest average health literacy combined with the highest Medicare prescription costs. Some of those costs could be due to dealing with the effects of the opioid epidemic, but that serves to illustrate that smarter medication management can also reduce costs.

Heeding the Call for a National Health Literacy Movement

Government inaction and immobility in the national healthcare debate is leaving many people behind. Across the country in communities without access to expansive healthcare options and nutritious, organic, locally produced food options, people are falling further behind in the health gap.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.5% of Americans had no insurance at any point during 2018. The percentage of uninsured children under 19 went up by 0.6% between 2017 and 2018. A more harrowing statistic comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: 11% of U.S. households lacked access to enough food for all household members for at least part of 2018.

When the public mindset changes, the government follows suit. Reversing these trends and reducing costs across the country requires a public attitude shift toward personal responsibility and public policies that reward healthy lifestyles.

Lower insurance rates for healthy lifestyle choices could be one form of incentive. Pairing lower prices on more nutritious food with taxes on unhealthy options would also go a long way toward influencing consumer choices and reinforcing healthier mindsets. The impact of such policies would accrue over time and could ultimately result in lower Medicare costs for states.

The Power of Personal Choice

A health literacy, prevention-for-all approach will only succeed when we start to solve health issues individually at the grassroots level. All of us need to take a good, hard look at ourselves to understand the personal and societal constraints that contribute to our health status. If we do this and make better-informed choices, a chain reaction can be set in motion.

When local communities want organic options, farmers markets pop up and restaurants create healthier options. Cities invest more in bike paths and walking trails when the community shifts toward an active lifestyle. Local healthcare costs ultimately go down as aging populations have fewer chronic health issues caused by lifestyle choices.

While there will always be health events out of our control, adapting to the individual factors within our control ultimately gives us more ownership in society. Improving your health literacy will empower you with the knowledge you need to start taking steps toward a better quality of life.

Author's Bio: 

Munjal Shah is the co-founder and CEO of Health IQ, a life insurance agency that rewards people with healthy lifestyles, like runners, cyclists, weightlifters, and vegetarians. After working as a technology entrepreneur for the first part of his career, he started Health IQ to improve the health of the world by celebrating those who practice healthy lifestyles.