New watch can detect AFib and other heart health issues, providing diagnostic data as well as peace of mind.
The fourth-generation Apple Watch goes well beyond your heart rate and the number of steps you’ve taken.
The device, which was unveiled last week, has an electrocardiogram (ECG) app that can detect often overlooked heart abnormalities that could lead to a heart attack.
And if you are felled by a heart problem, the fall detector built into the Apple Watch Series 4 could alert medical professionals that you need help.
Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, said the added functionality makes the Apple Watch 4 an “intelligent guardian for your health.”
Apple touted the watch’s “revolutionary health capabilities,” including an electrical heart rate sensor paired with an app that can take an ECG.
In 30 seconds, the app can classify whether the heart is beating normally or if there are signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib).
AFib, which can be detected by an ECG, is the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia and can lead to heart failure or stroke, Dr. Jonathan Hsu, an associate professor of cardiac electrophysiology at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), told Healthline.
“This could have value in detection of ‘silent AFib,’” said Hsu.
He added the Apple Watch essentially functions as a “single-lead” ECG, whereas an electrocardiogram delivered in a clinical setting typically uses 12 leads attached to the limbs and chest.
“There’s no doubt that devices that allowed patients to monitor their heart rate are helpful in making patients aware when their heart rate is elevated,” he said. “Adding an ECG is the next evolution in our ability to improve patient health.”
ECG data is stored in the watch’s Health app, which can be shared with physicians.
“A wearable may have utility in certain populations, for example, evaluation of a senior who says they felt very dizzy for a period of time earlier in the day but now feels fine,” Mark Prather, chief executive officer of DispatchHealth, which provides mobile urgent-care services, told Healthline. “We would wonder whether that might have been a cardiac arrhythmia. Review of the patient’s rhythm strip during the time of concern could answer that question for us.”
The watch also monitors heart function in the background. It can send a notification to the wearer if an irregular heart rhythm such as AFib is detected.
Some people are concerned if they feel their heart palpitate, even though it often is just normal heartbeats, noted Dr. Sanjiv Patel, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
“If they are wearing Apple Watch or a device like it, then they can record the ECG at that time and show it to their physicians to interpret it,” Patel told Healthline.
“Apple Watch can now record those palpitations with the help of the wearer and then show it to his or her physician. This may help anxious people calm down knowing that their heart is OK, and it may help get the truth in other cases.”
The watch also can provide stress relief for people like Traci Arbios, a California resident who has a genetic form of cardiomyopathy that once landed her in a coma for 10 days.
“The uncertainty of a heart event tends to make a person a little paranoid. I have these wonky beats [that] make my blood pressure drop, and I become gaspy like a fish, all with a dash of dizziness and physical weakness,” Arbios told Healthline.
“Every time I experienced this — and it was dozens of times a day — paranoia would grip me. Am I having another heart arrest? Is my Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) going to go off?”
Arbios bought an Apple Watch, which features a heart-rate monitor, after discovering her heart condition.
“Having the iWatch function relieved much of this tension because I could immediately see that what I was experiencing wasn’t going to knock me down,” she said.
Arbios added that she is already considering investing in the Series 4 watch because of the ECG function.
“Imagine living with a near constant obsession over whether your heart —something whose function you have literally zero control over — is beating correctly,” she said. “Having a device that can flatten that obsession would be like reducing a constant, blinding migraine to an occasional headache.”
If a hard fall is detected — due to a heart problem or any other cause — the Apple Watch will automatically alert emergency services if the wearer remains immobile for more than 60 seconds after a notification is sent to the user.
Wearables such as the Apple Watch aren’t a universal solution for detecting or preventing heart problems, experts say.
“Not everyone wants to be engaged in their health in this manner,” said Hsu.
With prices starting at $399 for the next generation Apple Watch Series 4, cost also is a barrier.
However, in some cases it might be worth the price.
“I think if you can afford this watch, it can certainly help you,” said Patel.
Futuresource Consulting, which tracks global market trends, estimates that the wearables market already tops $20 billion.
The firm notes there are 442 million people worldwide with diagnosed cardiovascular conditions who could potentially benefit from a wearable heart monitor.
Fitbit, a major rival to Apple in the wearables market, this week announced a new health app called Fitbit Plus alongside Fitbit Care, a connected health platform marketed to health plans, employers, and health systems that combines health coaching and virtual care driven by data gathered by wearable Fitbit devices.
“The Fitbit Plus app allows individuals to communicate directly with their care team and health coach, so they can receive personalized guidance and support at the time and place that is best for them,” according to a press release announcing the new products.
“Fitbit Plus also supports the integration of more advanced health metrics including blood glucose, blood pressure, or medication adherence for tracking alongside data from Fitbit and other third-party connected devices. This app allows users to see critical health data conveniently in one place, to better understand trends over time.”
“The race is on for electronics brands to bring these medical products to market, firstly by gaining approval from governmental regulatory bodies, followed by attaining trust from consumers,” according to Futuresource.