Scientists use Twitter to predict rates of heart disease

Is Twitter your go to place to vent about all the hate and outrage boiling up inside you? According to a Thursday report by the Smithsonian all that vitriol might be bad for your health and the health of your neighbors too. Scientists have used Twitter to predict the spread of disease before, but recent research shows that looking at the content of the tweets themselves allows scientists to get an idea of a community’s psychological well being, and get an idea about what kinds of health problems that community might be prone too.

The study found that angry tweets, perhaps unsurprisingly, can be linked to heart disease. Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania reached their conclusion by connecting theories about how language relates to emotional states with county health records. The researchers worked on what they called “emotional dictionaries” that matched certain tweets with psychological states, and then connected these tweets with public health records for heart disease. Even after correcting for socioeconomic factors the scientists found a strong connection could be drawn between how angry a communities tweets were and that communities heart disease mortality rate. The heart disease issues affecting these communities didn’t just target those select few spite-filled tweeters either, they affected everyone in the community.

There is a silver lining, however, because the connection between rage-filled tweets and heart issues worked both ways. The researchers discovered that communities which tweeted more about happiness, and optimism seemed to have significantly lower rates of heart disease mortality.

“The relationship between language and mortality is particularly surprising,” explained H. Andrew Schwartz, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Computer and Information Science who worked on the study. “The people tweeting angry words and topics are in general not the ones dying of heart disease. But that means if many of your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.”

How scientists might develop this kind of study into something practical is yet to be determined, however, one things is for certain; if your neighbor is tweeting about how angry they are you might want to ask them to cheer up, it’s your heart on the line after all.