The health tracker around your wrist or elsewhere on your body is pretty intelligent. It sees every step you take during the day and gently reminds you if you aren’t taking enough of them. It sees you to sleep and knows if and when you have a restless night. It can calculate the number of calories you burn over the course of a day to help you decide whether or not to feel guilty about that extra slice of pizza you ate for lunch. And higher-priced wearables can monitor your heart rate to help you gauge your exercise intensity while trying to burn off said pizza.
Earlier this year, a story made news when one woman’s Fitbit measured an abnormally high resting heart rate, an observation that led her to discover that she was pregnant. And a 17-year-old high school football player can credit his Apple Watch for quite literally saving his life after it helped him discover that he had rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue which can lead to vital organ damage if left untreated. While no wearable is able to make a formal medical diagnosis, the data that these sensor-laden wearables collect can be useful in helping to uncover a whole host of other medical conditions that go far beyond simply encouraging healthy habits. Here are five things your wearable device might know that could help you manage your health:
1. Whether you’re at risk for diabetes
Heart rate and its associated arrhythmias are universally accepted as an indicator of cardiac health. The variation in the time interval between these heartbeats, known as heart rate variability (HRV), is being actively researched as an indicator for a number of diseases unrelated to the heart. Normal, healthy patients have high HRV; they have heartbeat intervals of varying length. Low HRV has been connected with various metabolic disorders, such as atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. A 2005 study showed that diabetics and pre-diabetics had a more rapid decrease in HRV than non-diabetic subjects over a nine-year period. The good news is that HRV is increasingly being included in wearables such as the FitPal and QardioCore for both health and fitness purposes.
2. Whether you’re too stressed
In addition to one’s physical health, heart rate variability is also being investigated as an indicator of mental health. But in addition to looking at the heart, some wearables, such as the Spire, also measure breathing patterns to help users calm down. One head-worn device, the Muse, actually measures electrical signals from the brain and responds with personalized sessions on a mobile device to help relieve stress. Poor mental health is a major concern, as it is a risk factor for weight gain, heart disease, and other chronic physical conditions. Apple has even included a breathing app in the upcoming Apple Watch software update.
3. Whether your blood pressure is too high
The technology used to measure blood pressure has changed little over the years. One can either have an inter-arterial catheter inserted to measure the pressure directly, or for the vast majority of us, have our limbs squeezed with a blood pressure cuff. An even less invasive method of blood pressure measurement has been developed that involves pulse transit time, which is the time it takes for a pulse wave to travel between two arterial sites. While this cuffless blood pressure measurement is currently only found on the non-wearable, Tricorder-like Scandu Scout, the process involves a simple scan of the forehead, making it ideal to be incorporated into wearables.
4. Whether you’re vulnerable to an asthma attack
Asthma sufferers often have difficulty recognizing symptoms of an imminent flare-up; by the time they experience wheezing and reduced lung function, it means an asthma attack is already happening. An upcoming wearable called ADAMM (Automated Device for Asthma Monitoring and Management) utilizes a number of highly sensitive sound and motion sensors coupled with advanced algorithms make it capable of identifying the possibility of an attack in advance. Tiny motion sensors measure breathing patterns, heartbeat, and body vibrations caused by wheezing. A microphone counts the number of times a user coughs but can also listen for the subtle changes in breath sounds that accompanies the onset of an attack. ADAMM can also measure skin temperature to monitor for exercise-induced asthma or other respiratory conditions that cause a change in body temperature. Together, these measurements can help users keep their asthma under control.
5. Whether you’re getting the right amount of sun
With summer in full swing in the northern hemisphere, more daylight means more of a risk of melanoma skin cancers due to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, there are more new cases of skin cancer each year than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung and colon. To help you limit your time in the sun, or at least remind you to add more sunblock, many new wearables incorporate UV detecting features. The simplest UV sensing wearables are patches that turn a certain color after a certain amount of UV exposure, while the more expensive wearables will tell you how much sun you’re getting with personalized recommendations based on your skin type. And once winter arrives, and the cold weather and lack of sun keeps you indoors, other wearables can gently encourage you to take advantage of the daylight to prevent seasonal affective disorder.
Wearables in healthcare
In its concluding paragraphs, the Future Health Index 2016 gives an optimistic vision for health technology: “With devices growing more sophisticated and a new, digitally native generation of healthcare professionals and patients emerging, healthcare institutions will have more opportunity than ever…to incorporate technology into the delivery of care in the years ahead. What is not inevitable, however, is connected technology being applied in a way that fulfills its potential in the healthcare context, or that maximizes benefits for patients and healthcare professionals.” We’ve seen that the sensor technology already exists in these wearables, and with just a little more time, they’ll move from the realm of encouraging healthy habits to helping manage or even better – prevent – some of our biggest health problems.