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Smartwatches: Saving lives or short-circuiting hearts?

Are you a fan of heart palpitations and spontaneous shocks? No? Then you might want to think twice about strapping on that fancy new smartwatch.

According to a new study, smartwatches may be the cause of heart attacks in some vulnerable patients. It turns out, the small electrical currents emitted by these devices could interfere with medical devices such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs).

This study was recently published in HeartRhythm Journal. This is a peer-reviewed medical journal that covers research related to cardiac arrhythmias and electrophysiology. It is the official journal of the Heart Rhythm Society – an international organization focused on improving the care of patients with heart rhythm disorders.

Is your smartwatch trying to kill you? Research raises red flag

The report “raises a red flag,” according to lead author and computer engineer Dr. Benjamin Sanchez Terrones of Utah University. “These gadgets interfere with the proper functioning of the CIEDs (cardiac implantable electronic devices) we tested,” he explains.

However, before you get too worried, the team emphasised that the gadgets are still safe for most folks. In fact, studies show that people who wear smartwatches are actually healthier than those who do not. So, if you don’t have any heart problems, you can still wear your beloved smartwatch.

Game-changer for those suffering from heart disease

This study, however, could be game-changing for those suffering from heart disease. Pacemakers work by sensing what the heart is doing and sending an electrical impulse to restore its rhythm if it has slowed or missed a beat. Up to three million Americans are thought to have pacemakers.

ICDs are less common, but they still monitor the heartbeat and, if necessary, restore it with an electrical shock. Still fresh in our memory is Christian Eriksen, a soccer player. He famously had one fitted after collapsing on the field during Euro 2020 due to cardiac arrest.

The researchers attached smart devices to the models and measured how much the electrical currents emitted by the devices affected them. Simulations revealed voltage values above the safe thresholds, implying that the devices could cause dangerous shocks to the heart.

Smartwatch pacemaker

Smart rings and smart scales were found to interfere with each other less than smartwatches. In the case of a pacemaker, the bioimpedance’s tiny electrical current could fool the heart into thinking it is beating fast enough, preventing the pacemaker from performing its function when it should.

Benjamin Steinberg, co-author and University of Utah professor, warns that “We have patients who rely on pacemakers to stay alive. If the pacemaker is confused by interference, it may stop working for the duration of the confusion. If the interference continues for an extended period of time, the patient may pass out or worse.”

Best to avoid if you wear a pacemaker or ICD

So, what is the study’s main takeaway? If you wear a pacemaker or ICD, it may be best to avoid wearing a smartwatch. While these types of devices are generally safe for most people, those with heart problems should avoid them.

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But, before you throw away your smartwatch, keep in mind that the research was done using computer simulations rather than real people. So the results may not be directly applicable. More research is needed to determine to what extent the findings apply in real-life situations.

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Marko Maslakovic

Marko founded Gadgets & Wearables in 2014, having worked for more than 15 years in the City of London’s financial district. Since then, he has led the company’s charge to become a leading information source on health and fitness gadgets and wearables.

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