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Smartwatches aiding discovery of disease secrets

  • 2 Min To Read
  • 6 months ago

The use of smartwatches and fitness trackers in large-scale health studies is becoming increasingly popular and may revolutionize our understanding of various diseases, according to experts. These wearables are being used to research a wide range of health conditions, including heart disease, respiratory issues, neurological disorders, gynecological conditions, certain cancers, and mental illness. One notable example is the Apple Women's Health Study, a collaboration between Harvard, Apple, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which aims to gather data from as many as 1 million iPhone and smartwatch users over a 10-year period. The study focuses on menstrual cycles and other health and lifestyle factors.

Irregular menstrual cycles can be an indicator of various health issues, such as infertility, heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. However, menstrual and reproductive health research has historically been underfunded and understudied. By collecting data from a larger and more diverse sample of participants, researchers hope to improve diagnosis and treatment for conditions related to menstrual cycle disturbances.

The use of wearables in research extends beyond smartwatches to include other devices like "smart" glasses, rings, necklaces, and even clothing. Additionally, the availability of medical-grade wearables, such as smart patches, blood pressure devices, and continuous glucose monitors, is expanding. This trend has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted medical institutions to explore remote monitoring options for patients.

Tech companies like Apple, Samsung, and Google have developed open-source platforms that allow researchers to securely capture health information from individuals using wearables. For example, the Apple Heart Study enrolled over 400,000 Apple Watch users from all 50 states in just 8 months and demonstrated that smartwatches could identify irregular heart rhythms. The success of these studies has led to regulatory clearances for smartwatch electrocardiogram (EKG) apps.

While wearables offer exciting possibilities for health research, challenges remain. Ensuring the devices provide accurate and clinical-grade data requires further testing. Privacy and cybersecurity concerns also need to be addressed. Additionally, the widespread adoption of wearables is limited by factors such as device ownership, reliable internet access, and representation of underprivileged and rural populations.

Overall, the use of wearables in health research is expected to continue growing as more consumers and healthcare providers embrace these technologies. The ability to collect granular data and analyze it for insights into various health conditions holds promise for advancing medical knowledge and improving patient care.

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