Study: Tweets can indicate risk of heart disease

The use of social media in healthcare is evolving, with providers still largely trying to figure out how it can be applied to healthcare settings and patients. But it turns out that Twitter, and the language used on it, may be a good predictor of coronary heart disease, according to a new study in Psychological Science. […]

The use of social media in healthcare is evolving, with providers still largely trying to figure out how it can be applied to healthcare settings and patients.

But it turns out that Twitter, and the language used on it, may be a good predictor of coronary heart disease, according to a new study in Psychological Science. By analyzing tweets that reflect negative emotions such as stress, fatigue and anger, researchers determined that the psychological aspects were important identifiers, while more positive tweets indicated lower risk.

“Language patterns reflecting negative social relationships, disengagement, and negative emotions —especially anger— emerged as risk factors,” according to the study, conducted by  the University of Pennsylvania. “Most correlations remained significant after controlling for income and education.”

The study said Twitter language predicted the condition “significantly better” than a model that combined demographic, socioeconomic and health risk factors — including smoking, diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

“Capturing community psychological characteristics through social media is feasible, and these characteristics are strong markers of cardiovascular mortality at the community level,” the study said.

Researchers looked at thousands of tweets across 1,300 counties, which contain 88 percent of the country’s population, and found that words like “hate” or vulgarity were often tied to heart disease.

The research represents promise for the use of social media, but it could also be an important step in factoring the psychological well-being in with the overall health of a community.

“Researchers have long assumed that the psychological well being of communities is important for physical health, but is hard to measure. Using Twitter as a window into a community’s collective mental state may provide a useful tool in epidemiology and for measuring the effectiveness of public-health interventions,” researches said.

To that end, if successfully harnessed, social media “represents a new frontier for psychological research.” Data from billions of users could prove invaluable for public health initiatives, especially if it can be tied to actual outcomes.

Numerous startups and providers have attempted to capitalize on social media and healthcare. Doximity, for one, is positioning itself as a Linked In of sorts for physicians, while eRounds is looking to connect physicians who wish to share expertise in a less formal setting.

But few in healthcare have applied the psychological aspect, even though psychology plays an obvious role in mental health, which can significantly impact physical health. Coronary heart disease — the leading cause of death worldwide — was a natural fit, researchers said.

“Psychological states have long been thought to have an effect on coronary heart disease,” Margaret Kern, an assistant professor at the University of Melbourne who contributed to the study, said. “For example, hostility and depression have been linked with heart disease at the individual level through biological effects. But negative emotions can also trigger behavioral and social responses; you are also more likely to drink, eat poorly and be isolated from other people which can indirectly lead to heart disease.”

As a common cause of early mortality, public health officials carefully count when heart disease is identified as the underlying cause on death certificates. They also collect meticulous data about possible risk factors, such as rates of smoking, obesity, hypertension and lack of exercise. This data is available on a county-by-county level in the United States, so the research team aimed to match this physical epidemiology with their digital Twitter version.

Findings of the study fit into existing sociological research that suggests the combined characteristics of communities can be more predictive of physical health than the reports of any one individual.

The research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust. The study was led by Johannes Eichstaedt, a graduate student in the School of Arts & Science’s Department of Psychology.