What does your Twitter account say about you? According to a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, a thorough Twitter analysis can accurately predict the prevalence of heart disease. Just how accurate is the shocking part.
The study found that Twitter analyses can be a better indicator of the incidence of heart disease within a particular region than other factors such as smoking, diabetes, income, education, and obesity – combined. Who knew so much could be gleaned from your pithy comments about failed resolutions and the State of the Union Address?
“Twitter seems to capture a lot of the same information that you get from health and demographic indicators,” said Gregory Park of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychology and co-author of the study. “But it also adds something extra.”
That something extra: anger and general negativity as expressed through language in the Twitterverse. It turns out, according to this study, that such public displays of emotion can be an eerily accurate predictor of heart disease.
“… predictions from Twitter can actually be more accurate than using traditional variables,” Park added.
The secret is the data — the prevalence of lots and lots of public data, some positive (e.g., uses words like “wonderful” and “friends”) and some negative (judged through the use of expletives or words such as “hate.”)
“Getting this data through surveys is expensive and time-consuming, but more important, you’re limited by the questions included on the survey,” said Johannes Eichstaedt, also of the university’s Department of Psychology and lead researcher. “You’ll never get the psychological richness that comes from the infinite variables of what language people use.”
As the channel through which researchers gleaned their data, Twitter certainly proved an invaluable new tool. The risk factors to which negative language pointed, however – factors such as anxiety, stress and even depression – serve as valuable reminder during American Heart Health Month (February) of the role psychological factors can play in the fight against heart disease.
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., claiming around 1 million lives each year. What’s more, an estimated 80 million Americans have one or more types of heart disease.
And while obesity, diet, smoking and the lack of exercise are oft cited as the leading causes of heart disease, researchers agree that many of these habits (or lack thereof) can be linked to the psychological factors such as stress.
“… stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating,” states the American Heart Association (AHA). “Some people may choose to drink too much alcohol or smoke cigarettes to ‘manage’ their chronic stress, however these habits can increase blood pressure and may damage artery walls.”
Those who experience anxiety and depression may similarly react in ways that negatively affect diet, activity, and the willingness to make heart-healthy decisions, says the AHA.
Since we all experience stress, anxiety, and even depressive bouts from time to time, what’s the solution for overcoming the damage such everyday, emotional strain can have on the heart? It’s complicated, says Thembi Nkala, a senior cardiac nurse with the British Heart Foundation.
“The effect of stress on your body and heart is an extremely complex issue, and it’s something we don’t fully yet understand,” she said. “We’ll need more research to unpick this complicated relationship further, but in the meantime, it’s vital everyone finds ways to unwind and decrease their daily stress levels.”
To help temper your daily stresses, the Mayo Clinic offers these four tips:
Get Active: Physical activity is one of the greatest natural stress relievers, and it’s good for the heart, to boot. “Physical activity pumps up your feel-good endorphins and other natural neural chemicals that enhance your sense of well-being,” states the Mayo Clinic. “Exercise also refocuses your mind on your body’s movements.”
Laugh More: Though it seems like a stale old adage, laughter can indeed be the best medicine. “When you laugh, it not only lightens your mental load, but it also causes positive physical changes in your body. Laughter fires up and then cools down your stress response.”
Connect with Others: Feeling down? Turn to your social network – the kind you find in real life, not on Twitter. “Social contact is a good stress reliever because it offers distraction, provides support, and helps you tolerate life’s ups and downs.”
Assert Yourself: Learn to say “no” and delegate the duties in your life, both personally and professionally. While always saying “yes” may seem like a good short-term way to combat stress, “it may actually cause you internal conflict because your needs and those of your family come second, which can lead to stress, anger, resentment…”
And as the Twitter study above suggests, working more positive language into your everyday communications – whether interpersonally or via an online social network – can work wonders in improving your mood and creating more positive, heart-healthy habits.
“There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn’t just a state of mind,” said Carol Ryff, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It also has linkages to what’s going on in the mind and in the body.”
To learn more about heart health and ways to prevent heart disease, contact your personal physician.