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Credit: Courtesy of Andy Melton/Creative Commons

Negatively toned tweets could suggest something more dangerous — like a serious health problem.

Researchers at Penn led by psychology graduate student Johannes Eichstaedtfound that a community’s likelihood for a type of heart disease — characterized by a gradual buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries of the heart —can be measured by analyzing the language of tweets written by members of that community.

Eichstaedt and his team collected tweets from counties across the nation and measured the frequency of negative and positive words and phrases in each county’s tweets. They then compared the results to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand found that there was a direct correlation between risk for heart disease in a community and negativity of tweets. Counties with a higher frequency of negative language in their tweets were at higher risk for heart disease while counties with higher frequency of positive language were at a lower risk.

The researchers compared the accuracy of the Twitter model’s predictions to other traditional models that included socioeconomic factors, demographics and other health conditions such as diabetes, smoking and hypertension and found that the Twitter model outperformed the others.

Eichstaedt said the Twitter model’s success lies in its ability to provide a window into the minds of community members.

“Different models collect the same information, but Twitter layers on slivers of psychological condition,” Eichstaedt said. “The way we feel and the way we see the world affects our bodies. There are thousands and thousands of scientists looking into it."

In addition, Eichstaedt said that using tweets as a way to gauge the emotional health of the community is cheaper and quicker than traditional methods. Whereas traditional techniques utilize tedious surveys and trips to hospitals, which can only be done on a yearly basis, Twitter provides instant access to information.

Eichstaedt pointed out, however, that those Twitter users, most of whom are young people, are not the ones at risk for heart disease. Younger Twitter users are able to share insight into the emotional conditions of older members because they live in the same environment.

“They’re canaries,” Eichstaedt said of young community members. “They are the children, neighbors and grandchildren of the other older members of the community. They live in the same environment. How much green space …how much hostility [and how healthy] ecological conditions are in the community is broadcasted to the canaries,” Eichstaedt said.

Research Associate at the Philadelphia Veterans' Affairs Medical Center Ali Tariq agrees. “It makes sense,” Tariq said. “Emotional health not only enforces your mental health but also your physical health [and] people living in the same community are affected by the same environmental problems.”  

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