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Study finds link between negative tweets and heart disease

Tweeting isn’t just a mode of self-expression. It may also be a good indicator of whether the tweeter is at risk of heart disease, according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many factors can contribute to heart disease – from poor lifestyle choices such as lack of physical activity to socio-economic conditions (poverty) and psychological impacts (stress). The researchers found that Twitter can also capture the psychological well-being of a person or a community.

The study found that emotions such as anger, fatigue and stress expressed through tweets were associated with a higher risk of heart disease while positive emotions and excitement were linked to a lower risk of coronary distress.

Emotions and our mindset have an outsize effect on our health. Dr. Sheila Khianey, a cardiologist at Novant Health UVA Health System Haymarket MedicalCenter and Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center, said she believes that a positive or negative mental state is the “single most important factor that shapes our health.”

It’s based on some of mankind’s most primitive instincts and response to fear and anger. The “fight or flight” response elevates the body’s stress levels during a dangerous situation, but subsides when the threat has passed.     

“With constant negativity, this response stays on, and it spirals into pathology,” Khianey said. “Our heart rate stays higher. The blood vessels in our body constrict. Our blood pressure rises and people develop medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease and stroke.” 

In their analysis, the researchers looked at the language used in 148 million public tweets over two years from 1,347 counties across the country. They compared that information to public health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for each county, including information on deaths from heart disease and rates of smoking, obesity and hypertension.  

Comparing the information, researchers found the models based on the tweets were an accurate indicator of heart disease death rates recorded by the CDC.

While the researchers admitted that the angry tweeters were not necessarily the people dying of heart disease, they said if your neighbors are angry, you are more likely to die of heart disease.

Khianey thinks that investing in emotional health by the scientific and medical community is a good thing.

“Our minds are very powerful and what we think, how we perceive ourselves and our environment – whether positive or negative – shapes our emotional and physical health and can also impact others,” Khianey said.

Khianey said how a person reacts to negativity or positivity on social media or through other means is highly individual. She does believe that social media has changed the way people relate to each other, she added. “It has replaced at least in part the face-to-face interactions we had 10 years ago,” Khianey said. “Yet, it does not capture the full spectrum of human communication that takes place face-to-face.” 

As a consequence, meanings can be misconstrued and people forget that they are interacting with other human beings.   

Perhaps, the takeaway is to engage in social media wisely. Stay away from people who post emotionally negative tweets or stories and follow those who post while expressing hope and optimism.   


Published: 2/10/2015