Wearable Heart & Health Tech

Beyond just counting steps

Tech has taken over our lives. Where would we be without our phone which is also our entertainment system, camera, calendar, contacts, remote control, social center, and (sometimes)…phone? Everything we need is now in the palm of our hand, including monitoring our health. While fitness apps have been prevalent for years, allowing you to receive yoga moves to do throughout your day, track your steps or your run, get meal plans and count calories/fat/carbs/etc, now technology and software have advanced to allow for analyzing your heart’s rhythm, checking blood glucose levels, receiving alerts when you are dehydrated, even calling 911 for you if you take a fall. 

Smartwatches have advantages over smartphones for these applications due to their being in contact with your skin all day. As the largest organ in your body, your skin is the best litmus test for a variety of ailments, but your phone actually spends very little time in contact with your skin as it is usually in a pocket, purse or on the table next to you. After a slow start to gaining acceptance, smartwatches seem to have become more and more popular in our health-strained society. In fact, Apple’s Series 4 can track your fitness, of course, but it can also show you a real-time ECG, monitor for unusually fast, slow, or irregular heartbeats and notify you of such. In addition, it has fall detection capability and can call emergency services and your emergency contacts, conveying your location to both so help can reach you as soon as possible.

Of course, FitBit was the first to really take off on the wearable fitness trend, tracking steps, sleep patterns, and heart rate. They are continuously adding to their line of products and the latest technology offered include an accurate heart rate monitor, guided breathing apps, waterproof options which may include swim tracking, and a few even offer cell phone notifications and music storage so you don’t need to bring your phone along at all when exercising.

Heart Monitoring

If you are looking for a more comprehensive heart monitor, Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor, when paired with an artificial intelligence-based algorithm, can detect a serious and often symptomless heart arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation (AF or aFib) an astounding 97% of the time. While it’s not diagnostic since arrhythmia can often be caused by a number of factors, it is a tool which can be used to open dialogue with your doctor to determine if treatment is needed[1]

If you don’t have the budget for a smart watch, or you simply prefer using a mobile phone, AliveCor offers KardiaMobile which uses a small device that connects to your phone and, according to the company, can “Take a medical-grade EKG anytime, anywhere. In just 30 seconds, detect Atrial Fibrillation, Bradycardia, Tachycardia or Normal heart rhythm.”  

Blood Glucose Monitoring

One of the leading correlated conditions linked to heart disease is diabetes, and unfortunately, it is becoming a bigger and bigger epidemic in the US. For diabetics, having accurate blood glucose readings is crucial. There are now several options available which integrate continuous monitoring on your cell phone. Dexcom and Medtronic have developed DA-cleared systems which use a transmitter you self-insert just under the skin to monitor glucose levels continuously and alert you via your smartphone or smartwatch to highs and lows. This means fewer finger sticks for diabetics. 

Future Possibilities

So what could the future hold for heart patients to help them take control of their own health management? Seeing your own ECG is only as good as the interpretation of the results. Simple fitness trackers do not offer much in the way of diagnostics, but when you have a device which is continuously monitoring your heartbeat, along with sending you alerts to contact your doctor when it detects a serious problem, the usefulness of such devices becomes increasingly clear. When it comes to those at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, there are actually defibrillation vests which can administer a shock just like an AED in the event of loss of consciousness and heart rhythm, but they are only available by prescription and are exceptionally expensive; therefore not practical for everyday use by everyone – remember SCA can happen to anyone at any time regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or apparent health status. Let’s look at some tech already developed but with an eye toward possibilities:

  • On the market today you can find form-fitting shirts, tank tops, and bras with sensors placed in roughly the same configuration as ECG electrodes which monitor everything from breathing to sleep patterns, heart rate, workout statistics, and even full ECGs[2]. But what if these smart clothing items could detect abnormalities and send an alarm to your phone to warn you, or send an emergency response call to 911 for catastrophic events, or even administer a shock between two of the electrodes or sensors if one was determined to be needed? Imagine if the runners who have gone into cardiac arrest and died during marathons had been wearing something like that?
  • Back in 2014, there was talk of digital contact lenses which could not only correct far-sightedness but analyze tears for glucose levels in diabetics[3]. While this has stalled due to testing which revealed tears do not provide an adequate level of diagnostic material for glucose monitoring, there have to be other applications for which the analyzation of tears could be beneficial. Tears contain electrolytes (sodium, chlorine, potassium, urea), glucose, and proteins (antibodies, lysozyme, lipocalin, and lacritin)[4], and electrolyte disorders can negatively affect blood pressure, muscles, and kidneys.[5]
  • With the advancement of self-diagnostic devices, how far are we from a day when we don’t have to go into the doctor’s office for regular checkups at all, but can simply have a report sent to our doctors when we choose? Would this help control medical costs? The possibilities are certainly exciting to contemplate!

[1] http://www.macworld.com/article/3196132/ios/research-shows-the-apple-watch-can-detect-an-early-sign-of-heart-disease.html 

[2] https://www.wareable.com/smart-clothing/best-smart-clothing

[3] http://labiotech.eu/contact-lens-glucose-diabetes/ 

[4] https://sciencenotes.org/chemical-composition-teardrop/ 

[5] http://www.healthline.com/health/electrolyte-disorders#causes4 

Original post: June 16, 2017

Update: August 22, 2019

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