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Aging Well: Your Time to Thrive

From the Golden Age to the Internet Age: Seniors Online

By Deborah S. Edelman

"Researching health is the most popular use of the internet among seniors after e-mail."

When 75-year-old Edith developed lasting side effects following chemotherapy she went to her computer, surfed several websites, and found out about a support group for one of her ailments. "It was a relief to get answers on my own rather than having to ask my doctor a million questions," she says.

Seventy-something Dorris K. compared notes with other seniors in a chat room about bursitis in her knee. "I haven't followed their advice but I like hearing how other people are dealing with it," says the practicing family therapist.

More and more senior citizens — estimates range from 32 to 60 million — are tapping the internet for health information, choosing from more than 10,000 sites, at last count.


If you thought cyberspace was only for the young, think again. More seniors are logging on than ever before, seeking information and community. And for those seniors who are less mobile or more isolated, the internet offers the chance to interact without leaving home.

Studies say more and more seniors are using the internet to get health information. A 1999 study by the Health On The Net Foundation found that 38 percent of all U.S. and Canadian internet users are over age 50. A SeniorNet.org study shows that the rapid growth rate of seniors on the internet is second only to teenagers.

"Researching health is the most popular use of the internet among seniors after e-mail," reports Ann Wrixon, President of SeniorNet.org, founded in 1986 to bring computer skills to people over 50. These findings are important, she says, because seniors control 77 percent of assets in the U.S. and represent 40 percent of consumer demand.

Just how are seniors affecting health resources on the internet? Well, according to the HON study, online support groups account for twice as much interest as prescription-purchasing.

High hopes for e-health

Just as low-cost stock-trading on the Internet has revolutionized the financial industry, the healthcare industry is undergoing internet-driven transformations, from which seniors in particular are likely to benefit.

A recent roundtable on "E-Health" at the University of California at Berkeley's Haas School of Business brought together more than fifty experts from various disciplines to discuss the dynamics of those changes. While some physicians complain about patients relying on the internet for medical advice, others see the trend as positive.

"Information is power, and empowering patients is good for their health," says Gil Omenn, M.D., Ph.D, CEO of the University of Michigan's Health System.

And in fact, the internet is becoming part of treatment, according to Mary Jo Deering, Ph.D., Director of Health Communication at the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. She noted that the internet can help physicians monitor compliance as well as educate patients. Many websites already offer customized "health trackers" so users can stay on top of medication schedules, check-ups and the latest relevant information.

The roundtable reviewed several internet health products that are in the works, such as interactive patient monitoring devices. Prescription drugs are already available for purchase online, so seniors don't have to leave home to shop. And internet-enabled treatments, according to Deering and others at the Roundtable, offer the promise of healthcare access for underserved populations.

"A key hope for the internet is that it will reduce disparity in access to quality health care," said Omenn.

Cracking the code

While health information on the web is already prolific, consumer demand generates more. Mark Smith, M.D., President of the California HealthCare Foundation, whose mission is to expand access to health care, notes that there is "still a 'roach motel' of data in Washington; Information goes in that is not available to the public online yet."

In order to evaluate information on a website, it's important to know if the information is there to promote a product or service. And regardless of how much health information is out there, the experts agree that consumers should consult with their physician when making healthcare decisions.

Beyond information seeking, health trackers and prescription ordering, many seniors take advantage of the day-to-day ways the internet can help them improve their health. Edith says she even goes online to find energy-boosting recipes. "I don't have to go anywhere and the internet makes information available 24-hours a day," she says.

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