Can Your Smartwatch Detect Atrial Fibrillation?
Smartwatches can be a great tool for heart health monitoring. Most popular smartwatches on the market offer a heart rate monitor function, which has been primarily used by fitness enthusiasts for tracking their activity levels during a workout or throughout the day. Tracking heart rate is a great way to chart your own personal metabolic rate and allows you to compare your rate of exertion to other members of your age group, giving you a great indicator of your heart health. Heart rate monitoring can be a fun metric to track, but it’s also one of the cardiologist’s primary tools for assessing whether your health is functioning properly.
What Your Heartbeat Says About Your Health
Anyone can check their heart rate by pressing a hand against the wrist, which checks the flow of blood in the radial artery, or by pressing a hand against the neck, which checks the carotid artery. Physicians often use an Electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) to interpret a patient’s heartbeat. An EKG offers information that can tell your doctor four things:
- Whether your heartbeat is irregular
- If your heart is enlarged
- Whether your heart is getting enough oxygen
- Whether you’ve had a heart attack in the past
How Smartwatches Detect Heart Rate
Smartwatches track heart rate in a similar way as checking the pulse, but without the use of physical pressure. Popular Smartwatches from brands like Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit use photoplethysmography to detect a heartbeat. This is the process of projecting a green light on the skin, which gets absorbed by the blood. More green light being reflected is related to lower blood flow, which indicates that the heart is in-between beats.
Can a Smartwatch Detect Afib?
While smartwatches are not as complex as an EKG, new studies have shown that they may be capable of detecting one of the same health issues that an EKG can. Irregular Heartbeat, also known as Atrial Fibrillation or AFib, is a health condition that can be a precursor to serious cardiac events and stroke. Testing for AFib is a simple, but important process for older adults, and it’s important to contact a doctor if you’ve experienced symptoms, which include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
Some forms of AFib are harder to detect however, and having a heartbeat-enabled smartwatch might be a great tool for finding the condition sooner. A study funded by Apple in the New England Journal of Medicine found that smartwatches had the capacity to detect AFib, but weren’t necessarily reliable in always detecting it. Of the 400,000 participants in the study, 52% received an alert from their smartwatch that they had experienced episodes of an irregular heartbeat after 117 days of monitoring. Of those that saw a doctor after the notification, it was found that 70% of them experienced irregular heartbeat after taking a long-term EKG test. This shows that smartwatches can be used to detect AFib, but they will not catch it in 100% of patients.
Don’t Use a Smartwatch as a Substitute
There’s anecdotal evidence of smartwatches saving lives, but they’re useless without the work of medical professionals. Smartwatches are a great way to monitor your heart rate and take an active step in understanding heart health, but they are not medical equipment. Smartwatches may be capable of detecting AFib, but they’re not infallible, and no substitute for the advice of a trained cardiologist.
If you’re experiencing uncomfortable symptoms like weakness, reduced ability to exercise, fatigue, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, or chest pain, it’s imperative to speak to a medical professional, regardless of whether you’re wearing a smartwatch. AFib can be treated with a myriad of both invasive and noninvasive options, with blood thinners being a simple and effective solution for many patients, but it’s important to consult a cardiologist early.