Friday, March 27, 2015

How Social Media Can Be Used To Track Heart Disease?

Social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit and Pinterest are very popular among people, especially when they can easily be accessed via smartphones. People use them to express how they feel, what they do and even what they eat. Now, scientists can also use them as an indicator of a community’s psychological well-being.

Recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia, Northwestern University and University of Pennsylvania in the United States revealed that Twitter not only predicts heart disease risk as well as many other traditional methods, but it also acts as a psychological barometer. Their findings were published online January 20, 2015 in journal ‘Psychological Science’.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Its key risk factors include diabetes, smoking, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity and physical inactivity.

In the study, the researchers looked at and analyzed 148 million randomly sampled tweets from 1,347 counties in the United States, which comprised 88 percent of the country's population. They then gathered country-level information on heart disease (coronary heart disease) and death, as well as a range of demographic and health risk factor information including average income and proportion of married residents. According to them, the Twitter language prediction system worked far better than a model that combined 10 common factors, such as smoking status and rates of obesity.

Positive terms such as wonderful and friends were associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Repeated negative emotive words like hate and bored in local community tweets correlated with a higher heart disease rate in those communities, even after variables such as income and education were taken into account.

While it is impossible to predict the number of heart attacks a community will have within a given time frame, the language gathered might reveal places to intervene. Language patterns can reflect negative emotions like hostility and depression that can also trigger behavioral and social response. People with negative emotions are more likely to drink, eat poorly and be isolated from other people. All these behaviors can indirectly lead to heart disease.

Researchers believe that twitter can potentially be used to assess a wide range of issues, including depression rates, the prevalence of eating disorders, and levels of alcohol or drug misuse in a given community. As compared to existing methods like telephone interviews, it can be carried out at a significantly reduced cost.

Though it is not sure that this technology that is based on user-generated content is useful in all applications, it is worth further investigation. Previous studies based on user-generated content like using Google searches to predict the likely spread of flu have proved successful.

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