Twitter and Heart Disease

twitter-bird-white-on-blueAre you on Twitter? Do you frequently curse or make use of inappropriate language on Twitter? If your answer is YES, be aware that, according to a newly published scientific article, you are more susceptible to die of a heart disease.

If that’s true or not we don’t really know. But let’s go through the facts already known by the scientific community, as well as through the some important details of this specific investigation before we make any statement about it.

A research group in USA found that language expressed on Twitter, used to characterize community-level psychological profile, correlates with mortality from atherosclerotic heart disease. For those that are not familiar with medical terms like that, atherosclerotic heart disease, also called coronary heart disease, or hardening of the arteries, is the leading cause of heart attacks, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease in developed countries.

Twitter3In fact, psychological variables and heart disease risk are known to be connected at multiple levels, including health behaviors, social relationships, situation selection, and physiological reactivity. But, how to access this information in a large number of people? Few years ago, Twitter made public for developers and researchers a database containing around 10% of a random sample of all the tweets posted between 2009 and 2010 called the “Garden Hose”. So, the authors managed to map 148 million of tweets across 1347 US counties. They assumed that by using the Tweets, brief messages (no more than 140 characters), containing information about emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and other personally salient information, several community-level psychological characteristics will be revealed and that could be associated with heart-disease mortality risk. In fact, they have shown that not only cursing on Twitter correlates with heart disease mortality, but also that the Twitter language predicted heart disease mortality better than other 10 common demographic parameters combined, i.e. socioeconomic condition, smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity among others.

However, there are several concerns that should be addressed when results like that are make public to the general population. Several limitations could be raised in the study. First, there are limitations regarding the use of the Twitter language itself as a predictive tool: Twitter users are not representative of the general population; typically, they are more urban and have higher education levels; they are also younger than a typical person at high risk of develop any type of heart disease. Moreover, there is no control on the Twitter’s users register and their identity.

Second, the fact that it is a cross-sectional study limited the conclusions regarding causality. By time, a “Cross-sectional study” is a type of observational study, very common in the medical research and social science, which involves the analysis of data collected from a population, or a representative subset of a population, at one specific point in time. By saying so, other studies, on a larger number of individuals and carried out to evaluate the changes in the language characteristics over time period and the incidence of heart disease should be conducted.

By iStockphotoLast but not the least, the people tweeting in this investigation were not the people dying. Therefore, there is NO causality between Twitter language and mortality. NO cause-and-effect relationship between actions (Tweets) or events such that one (heart disease mortality). So, any kind of conclusions should take with caution.

Although the authors stressed most of these limitations in the original article, data like that use to call the attention of the general media (and, in fact, it did…) and several blogs and newspapers have written about it. The take home message is: it is NOT clear at all if Twitter bad language can indeed leads to higher heart-disease mortality and why.

So, can we trust correlation analysis such as the Twitter language versus mortality caused by heart disease? Yes, we can IF the studies are designed and conducted in the most appropriate way, limiting possible limitations. Otherwise, we can find any kind of weird correlations.

What if, for example, you find that the number people who drowned by falling into a bath-tub correlates with the cost of red apples? Or, if the amount of money spend by US on science, space, and technology correlates with the number of suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation? Seems hilarious but these actions and events were found correlated, and published by a website called Spurious Correlations, created by Tyler Vigen a J.D. (Juris Doctor) student at Harvard Law School. So, if you want to correlate things, be aware of what are you doing…

BUT, if you really want to know what kind of actions you should take to have a better cardiovascular health, check the previous posts from our team at CERG Blog:

Test your fitness level – see your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease
Eat more avocados!
Genetics and cardiovascular disease
Shutting off blood supply to an extremity to protect the heart

Gustavo da Silva, Postdoctor at CERG


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