Can smartwatches help prevent stroke? A new study will see whether that's the case by tracking many thousands of patients via the heart rate sensors in their Apple Watches or Android Wear.
The University of California, San Francisco's Health eHeart study will monitor atrial fibrillation, the most common type of heart arrhythmia. The researchers will use an algorithm that can detect the difference between a normal heartbeat and a heartbeat of a person with atrial fibrillation. The study just needs the pulse rate that the smartwatch is constantly tracking anyway. As the researchers explain:
Your heart's normal rhythm varies from beat to beat, and the pattern of variability depends on what's happening in your life—whether you're stressed, excited, exercising, or just drank coffee. Atrial fibrillation is highly variable, but in a way that's random.
Smartwatches are set to completely change how heart health studies are done. Instead of asking participants to self-report, or to attend weekly test sessions at a hospital, or to wear obtrusive medical gear, they just opt into the study and wear their watch. Thanks to things like Apple's Research Kit, medical researchers can build studies in which the number of participants is an order of magnitude over what was possible before, and with constant, accurate data.
You can sign up for the study at the Mrhythm project page, and feed your watch's data into the program. Like any computer learning algorithm, Mrhythm learns best with big data sets, and the team hopes that many people will contribute their data. Even if you don't think you have any heart trouble, you might consider signing up, because the algorithm also needs healthy hearts to train it.
In the future, studies like this will make it possible to detect problems like atrial fibrillation much earlier. You can already give your doc access to your smartwatch health data, and in future this might be an essential part of your annual checkup. Only instead of being an annual checkup, your watch and your doctor's computers would be monitoring your health 24/7, and diagnosing problems before you even know you have them.