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Can heart failure risk show up on a smartwatch? It's possible, study says

Today’s smartwatches go far beyond checking time and texts. They can track an array of health information, including calories burned, step counts, sleep quality and even heart rate. 

Now, a new study from University College London suggests that a smartwatch’s heart rate tracker could potentially predict when someone has a higher risk of heart failure.

The study, published in The European Heart Journal — Digital Health, analyzed data from 83,000 people between the ages of 50 and 70 with no known cardiovascular disease.

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They had all undergone 15-second electrocardiograms (ECGs), which record the heart’s activity, including the rate, rhythm and strength of the heartbeat. 

The researchers found that those whose recordings captured an extra heartbeat were twice as likely to develop heart failure or arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm) in the next decade than those who didn’t have the extra beat.

A new study from University College London suggests that a smartwatch’s heart rate tracker could potentially predict when someone has a higher risk of heart failure.

A new study from University College London suggests that a smartwatch’s heart rate tracker could potentially predict when someone has a higher risk of heart failure. (iStock)

Many of today’s wearable devices, including popular consumer-grade smartwatches, use ECG technology. This led the researchers to suggest that the devices could help predict the risk of future heart failure.

“Someone with one or more extra beats (called in jargon premature contractions or ectopic heartbeats) in a 15-second ECG recording has significantly higher risk (over two-fold) of developing heart failure (if the extra heartbeat originates from the ventricles) or atrial fibrillation (if the extra heartbeat originates from the atria) over 10 years,” lead author Dr. Michele Orini of the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science told Fox News Digital in an email.

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The study adjusted for several common risk factors, including age, sex, body mass, blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and cholesterol levels, he said. 

‘Don’t panic’

If people spot an extra beat in a short (15-second) ECG recording, they shouldn’t panic, Dr. Orini said.

“In most cases, these extra beats are benign and do not represent an imminent risk,” he said. 

Those whose recordings captured an extra heart beat were twice as likely to develop heart failure or irregular heart rhythm in the next decade than those who didn’t have the extra beat, said researchers. 

Those whose recordings captured an extra heart beat were twice as likely to develop heart failure or irregular heart rhythm in the next decade than those who didn’t have the extra beat, said researchers.  (iStock)

However, if these extra beats are noticed multiple times, people should discuss this with their health care provider.

To help ensure early detection of heart conditions, Dr. Orini said he would like to see tech companies provide automatic detection of extra beats on their smartwatches.

“In most cases, extra heartbeats are benign and do not represent an imminent risk.”

“Ideally, the health care sector and other scientists should work together to assess how to optimize early risk stratification using wearable ECGs to prevent major cardiovascular events,” he added.

‘Smartwatches are not medical devices’

Tamir Tal, CEO of Cordio Medical, an Israel-based health technology firm specializing in early detection of heart failure, was not involved in the study but reviewed the findings.

“The study identifies an essential difference between an over-the-counter (OTC) smartwatch medical screening tool and an approved medical device (ECG) to diagnose medical disease,” Tal told Fox News Digital via email.

Some 6.2 million<strong> </strong>adults in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Some 6.2 million adults in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  (iStock)

Only devices and artificial intelligence (AI) that undergo rigorous clinical studies to achieve FDA approval can be recognized as a diagnostic medical device, he cautioned.

“The lead author states that the wagerable ECG screenings could be combined with artificial intelligence to quickly identify higher-risk ECGs quickly — and he is correct,” Tal said.

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“While monitoring for heart health using smartwatches can be a good, non-medical screening tool, it can’t be considered a medical device that can diagnose unless it goes through clinical studies and the FDA,” he added.

Insight into the study’s limitations

The main limitation is that the researchers did not actually analyze ECG readings from smartwatches, but those that were recorded using electrodes. 

“This is because at the time of the recording — the study started in 2006 — wearable ECGs were not available,” Dr. Orini explained. 

If someone notices extra heartbeats multiple times, the person should discuss it with a health care provider.

If someone notices extra heartbeats multiple times, the person should discuss it with a health care provider. (iStock)

However, the format and duration of the recordings are very similar to those implemented in popular smartwatches from manufacturers like Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and Withings, said the researcher.

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“I am confident that we would have gotten the same results had wearable ECGs been used,” the doctor said. 

Additionally, cases of previous cardiovascular disease were self-reported, which could affect the accuracy of that data.

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The researchers drew the study data from the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database with health information from 500,000 U.K. participants. 

Funding was provided by the Medical Research Council and the British Heart Foundation.

Some 6.2 million adults in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

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