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More than ever, seniors are online

I happened upon this statistic in a random Internet search: More than 54 percent of people over age 65 are actively involved in acquiring health information from the Internet. That's quite a jump from years prior. Some experts are referring to it as a "digital milestone." In 2000, it was only 13 percent.

Without apology, I admit I'm an Internet junkie — and I'm a better person because of it. Well, maybe not better, but definitely more informed.

This week I happened upon something called a "search cloud." It was almost like word art. There were health-related words of different sizes bunched together alphabetically in a manner that displayed the frequency people look up a particular word to acquire more information.

"Hypertension" (high blood pressure) and "Lisinopril" (one of the medications used to treat high blood pressure) were highly popular items to research this week. They were depicted in big, bold letters.

"Colonoscopy" (examination of the large intestine for colorectal cancer) was also in really big letters. But "sciatica" (radiating nerve pain in the lower back) had small, almost tiny, letters, indicating not much searching for information had gone on. That surprised me.

Maybe people with lower back pain have discovered that standing against a wall and rolling a tennis ball against your back at the point of pain is so helpful they don't need to query their computers further. Truth be told, I did not find that idea on the Internet; I got it from a massage therapist and double checked it with a physical therapist. But I digress.

The "search cloud" popped up when I went on www.MedlinePlus.gov which is one of my new favorite websites. The information is a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. It's very credible stuff. When we search the Internet, we always want the best information we can get. Websites ending in .gov or .edu are typically the most reliable.

The "word cloud" concept at Medline Plus is fascinating. The 100 most-searched health issues are displayed each day. It almost seems predictive. If lots of people are looking up "flu-like systems" for several consecutive days — and the font size of that phrase is consistently huge — the Centers for Disease Control might get early warnings about a flu epidemic. In fact, I think that actually happened a few years ago. See what I mean by fascinating?

But what about the 46 percent of older adults who do not search out information on health-related issues via the Internet? I worry about them. They are often socially isolated by age and circumstance already, and when they don't have digital access, it exacerbates their predicament. And they might be exactly the people who need information about their blood-pressure medications. Or "anemia," "aspirin" and "asthma" — which were also frequently made searches this week.

Planning ahead, I have an idea. If you're among those comfortable with doing Web searches, maybe when a friend says, "I wish I knew more about sciatica ..." you can offer to do a Web search for them. You might mention the tennis ball idea, too.

Reach Sharon Johnson at Sharon@hmj.com.