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Smartwatches can spot disease onset

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Smartwatches can detect the earliest symptoms of cold, Lyme disease or diabetes, a study has found, hinting at the potential of the technology for improving people’s health and well-being.

The study by Stanford University scientists, published in the journal PLOS Biology, involved 60 people who were asked to wear various types of smartwatches and fitness bands fitted with biosensors 24 hours a day for up to two years.

The researchers monitored basic physiological parameters such as heart rate, skin temperature and oxygen in the blood and compared it against information about the participants' activities including sleep, walking, biking and running, which can also be automatically detected by the devices.

The team compiled a large data set, in which they were able to determine certain patterns correlating with the times when the participants were getting sick.

“We want to tell when people are healthy and also catch illnesses at their earliest stages,” said Michael Snyder, professor of genetics at Stanford and senior author of the study.

It is a known fact that temperature and heart rate tend to increase as people become ill. The same can, however, be observed when someone is exercising.

The team has therefore written a software program that would work through the large amount of data, establish a baseline for every individual and subsequently find patterns indicating different types of conditions.

Dubbed ‘Change of Heart’, the algorithm was able to reliably distinguish the onset of common cold, spot early signs of diabetes or, in the case of Snyder himself, to alert the wearer to symptoms of Lyme disease, which was later confirmed with a laboratory test.

“I had elevated heart rate and decreased oxygen at the start of my vacation and knew something was not quite right,” Snyder said.

In some participants, the algorithm was able to spot changes that were later correlated with symptoms of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

“The information collected could aid your physician, although we can expect some initial challenges in how to integrate the data into clinical practice,” said Snyder.

“Physicians and third-party payers will demand robust research to help guide how this comprehensive longitudinal personal data should be used in clinical care. However, in the long-term I am very optimistic that personal biosensors will help us maintain healthier lives.”

The researchers also found that blood oxygenation decreases during airplane flights, which might lead to fatigue commonly experienced by travellers but frequently attributed to stress or being overworked.

“Many of us have had the experience of feeling tired on airplane flights,” Snyder said. “Sometimes people may attribute this to staying up late, a hectic work schedule, or the stress of travel. However, it is likely that cabin pressure and reduced oxygen also are contributors.”

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