Numeracy and health

Professor Gill Rowlands of Health Literacy UK explains why good numeracy is vital for managing your health.

Too many people struggle working out the numbers behind dietary information on food labels, according to a recent poll carried out by YouGov for National Numeracy. 

National Numeracy delved further into the importance of good numeracy skills for staying healthy with Gill Rowlands, Professor of General Practice, Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, and founder of Health Literacy Group UK.

Why is there a link between numeracy and managing your health well?

We need to be able to understand and manage numbers for many areas of health. We need these skills to stay healthy (such as knowing how to eat healthily, get the right exercise, have safe levels of alcohol drinking), prevent illness (such as understanding our own risk of diabetes or deciding whether cancer screening is right for us), and manage illness (such as knowing how and when to take our tablets). 

What sort of things do you need numbers for in relation to health and diet?

Firstly we need to understand the importance of a healthy weight, and how weight relates to height (the Body Mass Index or BMI). Then we need to understand what types of foods should be in a healthy diet, and what amounts of different food types we should be eating for health. So we must be able to understand what is right for us and our families, and be able to use nutrition labels on foods to help us get the balance right. 

How does numeracy fit into overall ‘health literacy’?

Health literacy is people’s knowledge and ability to obtain, understand and apply health information. Clearly numeracy is key because so much health information is in numbers. Without numeracy skills people will not be able to make sense of the information they are given.

How much difference can people make to their health by being confident with numbers?

A large difference; by being confident with numbers people can take control of their health, make their own health decisions, reduce the risk of being ill, and, if they do get ill, increase their chances of recovery or of living healthily with a long-term illness. 

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