Karen Hooker, Ph.D. (Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences)

Fifty-one percent of tweets by private users of Twitter accounts contain comments that are stigmatizing when they mention dementia or the people who have it, according to a study recently published in Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

Researchers at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, made the determination after they developed software and analyzed 33,000 tweets that made some reference to Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

“It was shocking to me how many people stigmatized Alzheimer’s disease and reinforced stereotypes that can further alienate people with this condition,” said one of the paper’s authors, Karen Hooker, Ph.D., who holds the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

The stigma, she added, can lead people with dementia to perform worse that they would have otherwise, due to negative expectations and stereotypes.

“This type of stigma can make it less likely that people will admit they have problems or seek treatment, when often they can still live satisfying, meaningful and productive lives,” Hooker said. “Our attitudes, the things we say, affect others, and social media is now amplifying our ability to reach others with thoughtless or hurtful comments.”

Those concerned about dementia and those who have it, the authors suggested, can try to be more conscious of their own comments on social media and more willing to engage with others who are using language that seems insensitive or potentially hurtful.

“We should also consider ways to combat stigma and negative stereotypes by tweeting about the positive experiences of persons with dementia and people in their social networks,” Hooker said.

Lead author of the study is Nels Oscar, an OSU graduate student in the College of Engineering. Additional authors include Pamela A. Fox, Racheal Croucher, Riana Wernick and Jessica Keune.