Contrary to the common misconception that diabetes is easily predicted by observing what a person eats and how much they weigh, it isn’t actually that simple.
Your age, your weight, your diet — none of these alone or even combined can necessarily predict your risk of prediabetes or diabetes.
But the beat of your heart may reveal details about your overall health that would otherwise take years to develop fully enough for a prediabetes or type 2 diabetes diagnosis from your doctor.
“Your heart beats 102,000 times per day and it reacts to everything that happens in your life — what you’re eating, how you exercise, a stressful moment, or a happy memory,” explains the website for Cardiogram, a new wearable technology device.
Johnson Hsieh and Brandon Ballinger, former Google tech leads, co-founded Cardiogram. It offers an app that tracks and analyzes aspects of your health based on the beat of your heart.
And the company founders say recent research shows the app’s ability to change the future of diabetes.
Researchers from Cardiogram and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), were able to distinguish between those with diabetes and those without in a population of 14,011 by measuring more than 200 million heart rates and step counts using current fitness tracking technology like the Fitbit and Apple Watch.
How does it work?
The app uses a complex series of algorithms — referred to by its creators at Cardiogram and UCSF as “Deep Heart” — to analyze heartbeat data gathered from your Fitbit or other fitness-tracking gadget.
“Typical deep learning algorithms are data-hungry, requiring millions of labeled examples, but in medicine, each label represents a human life at risk. For example, a person who recently suffered a heart attack or experienced an abnormal heart rhythm,” researchers stated in a study paper.
The algorithms were designed based on more than 30 billion measurements generated by more than 250,000 users of the Cardiogram app for Apple Watch and Android Wear.
To assess diabetes specifically, your heart rate actually reveals a great deal, long before your blood sugars are high enough to be diagnosed as diabetic.
“Your heart is connected with your pancreas via the autonomic nervous system,” explains Hsieh. “As people develop early stages of diabetes, their pattern of heart rate variability shifts.”
Your heart rate variability, in layman’s terms, is the lack of consistency in your heart rate.
More specifically, Hsieh told Healthline, a high resting heart rate and a low heart-rate variability predicts who will likely develop diabetes over a 12-year period.
While the Cardiogram prediction technology isn’t entirely perfect, it was able to diagnose diabetes with an 85 percent accuracy rate.
The value this technology could provide to those at risk for prediabetes is high simply because the condition evolves over the course of years, making it easy for patients to miss the opportunity to prevent their condition from becoming type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes complications, such as retinopathy (eye disease), can easily begin to develop during those undiagnosed years.
The Cardiogram app has already proven itself in providing early diagnosis for other health conditions.
Its success when applied to identifying hypertension, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and atrial fibrillation was presented at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific sessions in November.
“By detecting diabetes earlier, we can help people live longer and healthier lives,” explained Ballinger.
Is this legit?
While a healthy dose of skepticism is a wise thing to carry when it comes to the health claims of expensive gadgets, past research does back up the Cardiogram theory.
“Beat-to-beat variability in heart rate and an association with diabetes has been known for a long time,” Dr. Stephen Ponder, an endocrinologist and certified diabetes educator, told Healthline. “Many people with existing type 2 diabetes go undiscovered for years. Therefore, this device might be able to serve as a way to prompt some people at risk to get a proper evaluation by their doctor.”
Ponder, co-author of “Sugar Surfing,” believes the app could become a valuable screening tool.
The real question is, will the people who would benefit from this technology the most care enough to use it?
“There are lots of risk factors and screening tools for type 2 diabetes already, and people don’t take advantage of them, or even try,” said Ponder.