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Apple Watches can safely detect heart rhythm irregularities, Stanford researchers find

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Wearable health gadgets provide users with an array of resources — including step and calorie counts, sleep analyses and exercise tracking — but research published Wednesday by the School of Medicine finds that wearable technology can also safely identify heart rhythm irregularities, which can assist in detecting atrial fibrillation [AFib], the leading cause of stroke and hospitalization in the United States. 

“Atrial fibrillation is just one example of wearable technology’s ability to detect health conditions,” wrote lead researcher Mintu Turakhia in a statement to The Daily. “We can look ahead to many other areas of preventive medicine.”

Turakhia is director of the Stanford University Center for Digital Health and was senior author of the paper published Wednesday in “The New England Journal of Medicine.” Turakhia’s team was able to show that 84% of the time, the Apple Watch’s measurements agreed with electrocardiography (ECG) readings, a heart-monitoring technique that continuously measures the heart’s electrical impulses. 

These findings are important because they indicate that, while the wearable technology itself cannot diagnose users with heart conditions, it can detect irregularities and display those patterns to patients and doctors.  

Results were compiled by retrieving data from 420,000 volunteers who currently use an Apple Watch, making it the largest virtual study to date. The data from the study was stored at Stanford and analyzed by the researchers alongside a team at Apple.

AFib is a common heart condition that affects up to 6.1 million Americans per year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms of AFib include irregular heartbeat, chest pains and heart palpitations, often aggravated by diabetes, alcoholism or old age. The condition increases a person’s risk of stroke by four or five times, and also increases the severity of strokes relative to people without AFib. Moreover, it results in over 130,000 fatalities per year and costs the United States around $6 billion annually. 

According to Turakhia, the research shows that over 75% of participants alerted of an irregular heartbeat contacted their healthcare providers, suggesting wearable technology can prevent AFib in the general public and serve as another example of the marriage between medicine and technology.

Lead author and associate professor of cardiovascular medicine Marco Perez will present additional findings from the study in a session titled, “Apple Watch App Identifies Clinically Important Arrhythmias Other Than Atrial Fibrillation: Results From the Apple Heart Study” at the American Heart Association 2019 Scientific Sessions this weekend. 

“The study’s findings will help patients and clinicians understand how devices like Apple Watch can play a role in identifying this deadly disease,” Turakhia said. “They also lay the foundation for further research into the use of emerging wearable technologies in clinical practice and demonstrate the unique potential of large-scale app-based studies.”

Contact Leily Rezvani at lrezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Leily Rezvani is the managing editor of podcasts and a desk editor of news. She is a sophomore majoring in Symbolic Systems in hopes of better understanding the intersection between technology and the humanities. Leily has interned for National Public Radio, Google Arts and Culture, the United Nations Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Contact Leily at lrezvani ‘at’ stanford.edu.