Less than a third of over 65-year-olds use the internet for health purposes, compared to over half of those aged 50-65, a new study in the US has found.

Furthermore, evidence of a digital divide is growing, with only 15% of over-50s with an income of under $20,000 (£11,000) a year even using the internet in the first place. This has been reflected in the relatively poor numbers visiting the Medicare website; only 3% of over-50s went to the site last month, which offers information about local services and drug availability to the elderly and disabled.

“We know that the Internet can be a great health tool for seniors, but the majority are lower-income, less well educated and not online,” said Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which carried out the survey. “It’s time for a national discussion on how to get seniors online."

Of those over-50s who are online in the US, drug information was by far and away the most popular use of the internet, with 37% of people saying they went online to research medication. 30% of over-50s on the internet use it to find out nutritional information, and less still about long-term conditions such as arthritis (21%) and cancer (23%).

However, 58% of users said they “never” or “hardly ever" checked the authenticity of online information. A total of 16% of online over-50s (5% in total) have used the internet to purchase prescription drugs.

Just over half of those with e-mail said they received e-mail advertising drugs, probably as a result of increasing pharmaceutical-related spam in the past year . In comparison, only 7% of over-50s with e-mail have used it to communicate with their doctors.

A total of 1,450 adults ages 50 or over were surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation in conjunction with Princeton Survey Research Associates. The paper, ‘E-Health and the Elderly’, can be downloaded from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website here.