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Health & Science

Angry Tweets Predict Patterns Of Heart Disease, Researchers Say

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go from art to science. Our colleague Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us on the program to talk about social science research. And today, he chats with our colleague David Greene about heart disease.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Not just heart disease, heart disease and Twitter, David.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Heart disease and Twitter. OK, tell me more.

VEDANTAM: David, there's been a lot of interest recently in using technology to track diseases. In the past, you know, we've done stories that look at how if you track Google searches across the country, and you look at how people are searching for flu remedies, this can actually tell you how the flu is spreading even before public health authorities are actually aware of where the flu is going.

GREENE: Because people with the flu are the ones who are searching for remedies?

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: That's where the flu is.

VEDANTAM: There's new work now that connects Twitter with heart disease, because it turns out that you can trace many tweets to the location from which they were sent. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools traced these tweets and then they analyzed the language in the tweets to see if they were expressing anger, or love, or boredom. And they find, in an analysis of more than 1,300 counties, that the amount of anger expressed on Twitter is a very powerful predictor of heart disease in those counties. And in fact, anger, hostility and aggression on Twitter is better able to predict patterns of heart disease than 10 other leading health indicators, including smoking, obesity and hypertension.

GREENE: So what's happening? Is it just that in a place where people are more stressed out and angry, that leads to more heart disease and they're expressing that anger on Twitter? Or is it more complicated?

VEDANTAM: It's not quite clear what the connection is, David. We've known for a long time of course that stress and anger are not good for your health. But there's something of a mystery here, to be honest. Twitter users tend to be younger, so it's quite possible that the people writing the angry tweets are not necessarily the same people who are getting the heart attacks. So it could be that the tweets are picking up something in the environment that are sources of aggravation in these counties. It could also be the fact that, you know, just being around these very angry people who are expressing their anger on Twitter is just not very good for your health.

GREENE: Oh, so it just snowballs and feeds off one another.

VEDANTAM: Possibly.

GREENE: All right. Shankar, thanks a lot.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam, you can follow his anger-free Twitter feed @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @morningedition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.