Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

I heart Facebook: Scientists turn to social networks to study cardiovascular health


Status update: Facebook could be good for your heart.

That’s the hypothesis behind the Social Heart Study, a new social network-based project aimed at understanding how Facebook friendships contribute to cardiovascular health.

The study is the brainchild of University of California–San Francisco epidemiologist Mark Pletcher and University of California–San Diego behavioral geneticist James Fowler. They wanted to find a low-cost way to see if time spent ‘liking’ and ‘poking’ on Facebook has either favorable or adverse effects on people’s hearts. So they decided to go straight to the source. They created a Facebook app and started asking people to share their health data and online activity patterns.

The Social Heart Study went live last week and is still in beta mode. But eventually, the organizers hope to recruit a cohort of more than a million adults who are willing to pour their hearts out (so to speak) for science. All this personal information should form a huge online database for observational and interventional studies into cardiovascular health, and should reveal new online ways to prevent heart disease, the organizers say.

Study subjects can decide how much social or health data they want to contribute by choosing one of three tiers of enrolment. At the highest tier, the participants will be able to sign up for prospective, controlled clinical trials conducted completely via the Internet. “There is a need for new low-cost ways of doing interventional research and this is a great possibility,” says Pletcher.

The inspiration for the project came from a large social network that goes back well before Mark Zuckerberg’s website: the Framingham Heart Study. Since 2007, Fowler, together with Harvard sociologist Nicholas Christakis, has published several studies using data from the Massachusetts-based study showing how various traits are affected by people’s friends and family. “We mined that data quite a bit to look at relationships between friends and friends’ friends and so on,” says Fowler. “We found strong associations between health attributes like obesity, drinking behavior, depression and happiness within friend groups.”

Although the study claims to be “a collaboration between the University of California and” on its website, the researchers say they are still waiting for Facebook executives to decide whether the site will be an official partner in the study and provide free advertising to help with enrollment. Previous versions of the website also showed the American Heart Association (AHA) as a participating institute, although the organization’s name has since been taken down. Fowler says the AHA has shown interest in promoting the project, although the Dallas-based organization has not yet signed on officially.

Eventually, the scientists want participants to use the social network to help each other stay healthy via status updates, wall posts and photo shares. So, despite some claims that social networking can be bad for your health, you can take heart knowing that here’s at least one positive reason to spend more time on Facebook.

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