Your fitness tracker could soon alert to illness, new study says

By monitoring heart rate, physical activity, skin temperature and blood oxygen levels, fitness tracker and smartwatch data can be used to detect and even predict disease, a new study says.

Stanford University researchers strapped up to eight commercially available fitness trackers to the wrists of 60 individuals. The aim was to monitor physiological changes during various activities and their role in managing health and diagnosing and analyzing disease.

Scientists recorded over 250,000 daily measurements for nearly a year. Then they analyzed the data and found that out-of-the-ordinary measurements such as elevated heart rate and skin temperatures correlated with periods of sickness. Using this data, the authors developed algorithms to actually predict when someone was about to become ill.

“Once these wearables collect enough data to know what your normal baseline readings are, they can get very good at sensing when something’s amiss,” says Michael Snyder, one of the researchers.

“We think that if your heart rate and skin temperature are elevated for about 2 hours, there’s a strong chance you’re getting sick.”

Interestingly, they discovered striking changes in particular environments such as, for example, airline flights. Blood oxygen levels decreased during high-altitude flights, and this decrease was associated with fatigue.

They also made two important health-related observations. First, wearable sensors were useful in identifying the onset of Lyme disease and inflammation. Second, they found that wearable sensors can reveal physiological differences between insulin-sensitive and insulin-resistant individuals, raising the possibility that these sensors could, one day, help detect risk for type 2 diabetes.

Overall, the results from the study are very encouraging. Early detection of disease is crucial. In most cases, the earlier the disease is diagnosed, the more likely it is to be cured or well controlled. But no, don’t try to self-diagnose with your fitness tracker just yet.

Continuous tracking of your vital signs is more informative than having a doctor measure them once a year and comparing them with population averages, Snyder adds.

“Heart rate, for example, varies a lot so population averages don’t tell you much”

“I’m predicting that your smartwatch will be able to alert you before you get sick, or confirm that you’re sick if you’re feeling a bit off.”

This represents the next logical step. Wearables have become pretty good at tracking fitness, but soon they’ll also play a crucial role in managing our health. In a few years time, your Fitbit may know you are getting sick even before you do!

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