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Apple plans to release a new version of WatchOS this fall with a collection of enhanced health features. Image Provided by Apple
  • The latest software upgrade for the Apple Watch, WatchOS 9, offers new health-related features.
  • The new features include improved sleep monitoring, a medication management app, and enhanced heartbeat tracking for people living with atrial fibrillation (AFib).
  • WatchOS 9 will be released to the public later this fall.

This week Apple previewed WatchOS 9, the latest software upgrade for the Apple Watch.

This release adds several features, including better sleep monitoring, a medications management app and a heartbeat tracking tool for people diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib).

The announcement highlights Apple’s commitment to expanding the health and fitness uses of the Apple Watch.

The sleep-tracking feature puts the company in the same league as competitors such as Fitbit and Oura, while the medication and AFib tools expand Apple’s embrace of patient-centered health monitoring.

Here’s a run-down of these new health features.

For people with multiple health conditions, taking medications regularly can be a challenge, one that can negatively impact their quality of life and health outcomes.

One study estimated that between 44 percent and 76 percent of people with multiple chronic conditions did not take their medications as prescribed, although other research has found lower rates of medication non-adherence.

While concerns about drug costs drive many people to skip doses or cut pills in half to stretch their supply, sometimes people just have a hard time sticking to their medication schedule.

WatchOS 9 attempts to make it easier for you to take your medications — or vitamins and supplements — on time by allowing you to create schedules and set reminders.

Alison Phillips, PhD, an associate professor of behavioral medicine and director of the Healthy Habits Lab at Iowa State University, thinks this feature might help some people stay on track.

“Since forgetting to take one’s medications is a major reason for non-adherence, reminders can certainly help people to adhere better,” she said.

Some research shows that people who use mobile apps to remind themselves to take their medications on a schedule seem to do better, although it’s not clear how well people do over the longer term.

A device can certainly help you remember to take your medications regularly, but Phillips said for this feature to work, you need to have your device with you at the right time.

In addition, people can become reliant on the device for the “habit” cue, she said. If they lose the device or it breaks, they may lose the habit.

“This is why I prefer technology to be used in the short-term, to help individuals set up a self-sustaining habit — a habit that relies on the individual’s regular environment,” she said.

People in her studies have done better when tying their medication or other habits to their morning or evening routines because those routines happen each day.

In addition to enabling people to set up medication schedules and reminders, WatchOS 9 will also flag potential drug interactions. While a person’s pharmacy should catch these, the Apple Watch adds another layer of safety for people taking multiple medications.

One of the most ambitious clinical aspects of WatchOS 9 is the AFib History, which estimates how often your heart is in atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heart rhythm, projected to affect more than 12 million Americans in 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This condition happens when the upper and lower chambers of the heart are not in sync, which causes the heart to beat too quickly, too slowly or irregularly.

When AFib History is turned on, the Apple Watch will use its heart monitoring capabilities to estimate how often your heart is in atrial fibrillation.

A summary of this data can be downloaded as a PDF and shared with your doctor. This feature is intended for use by people with diagnosed atrial fibrillation.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration cleared the AFib History feature of WatchOS 9 for use with the Apple Watch and the iPhone Health app.

Researchers outside of Apple are also developing ways to use data from the Apple Watch to monitor other heart-related conditions.

A recent study by Mayo Clinic researchers, presented May 1 at the Heart Rhythm Society conference, found that data collected by the watch could be used to detect left ventricular dysfunction — a weak heart pump — regardless of where patients live.

“Advanced diagnostics that once required travel to a clinic can be accurately done, as this Apple Watch ECG study demonstrates, from a patient’s wrist whether they live in Brazil or Baton Rouge,” Dr. Bradley Leibovich, medical director of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Digital Health, said in a news release.

“App-based access to a medical center can help address health disparities by making high-level diagnostics accessible to more people in real-time,” he added.

Apple has also improved the Apple Watch’s sleep analysis capabilities by adding “Sleep Stages” to WatchOS 9.

The watch uses signals from the accelerometer and heart rate sensor to tell how much time you have spent in REM, core, or deep sleep stages.

This data syncs with the Health app on the iPhone, which allows you to see charts of your sleep alongside data on your heart rate and respiratory rate, also captured by the Apple Watch.

In addition to these health-related features, WatchOS 9 adds new statistics to help runners track their performance and reduce their risk of injury, including stride length, power, and segments and splits.

The watch update will also offer four new watch faces, support for new keyboard languages, less distracting notifications, and redesigned apps.

WatchOS 9 is available now on Apple Watch Series 4 and later as a developer beta, and as a public beta in July. WatchOS 9 will be available as a free upgrade in the fall.