by Helen Young
Smart watches are popular portable devices used to measure everything from the number of steps we take per day, to our physiological parameters. But now, it seems that they can also warn of the onset of complex diseases, including Lyme disease. This finding is based on a new study carried out by researchers from Stanford University, published in prestigious journal, PLOS Biology.
In the study, the researchers observed 60 participants throughout their daily lives. They found that smart watches were capable of indicating when the participants had colds and of signaling the onset of complex diseases such as Lyme disease and diabetes.
Smart watches are generally intended for fitness purposes or for use as a fashion statement. However, in this study, researchers took advantage of the watches’ portability, using a myriad of measurements to detect variations from normal baseline level for measurements such as one’s temperature and heart rate. The secret to the watches’ success lies in consistency: since people wear them all day, the devices can measure the subtle changes which can indicate the presence of disease. For instance, before people actually show symptoms of disease, their heart rate and skin temperature tend to rise.
The researchers created a new program called ‘Change of Heart’, which detects small deviations and predicts when people are about to become ill. Interestingly, the program found that one of the researchers – Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor and Chair of Genetics at Stanford – had Lyme disease. Snyder told the press, “I had an elevated heart rate and decreased oxygen at the start of my vacation and knew something was not quite right.” Snyder battled a low fever for a few days until he visited the doctor and received a diagnosis of Lyme. The watch was able to detect the illness in its earliest stages, thus enabling Snyder to receive prompt treatment. The Professor took popular antibiotic doxycycline and in a few days, he felt like his usual self.
The findings are important because they indicate the important role smart watches can play in monitoring one’s health and informing one of general illness – in many cases, receiving treatment in the earliest stages of disease increases the chance of success.
The biosensor watches also have an additional ability detected by the researchers: that of detecting one’s risk for Type II diabetes. Persons facing a risk of this disease have variations in heart rate patterns which are absent in those who are not at risk. Therefore, biosensors can play an important role in diabetes prevention. Affected persons can utilize the information obtained to visit their health care professional for a diagnosis, and immediately begin to make important lifestyle changes which will cut down the risk of development of diabetes. For instance, in the case of Type II diabetes, individuals can immediately begin a detox regime, ridding their diet of products that can increase blood glucose levels – these items may include sugar, alcohol and processed foods. When it comes to alcohol, moderation is key; a growing body of evidence shows that drinking alcohol responsibly (up to one drink daily for women or two drinks for men) can actually reduce the risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes. Weight control is equally important, since being overweight or obese is the most important risk factor for Type II diabetes.
Early detection is vital in the case of Lyme disease, since research indicates that the earlier patients are treated, the better the outcomes (as a general rule). When Lyme is caught soon enough, symptoms can often disappear altogether after an aggressive antibiotic treatment. Still, symptoms can continue to be a problem, creating what some doctors believe to be a possibly auto-immune ‘post-Lyme syndrome’ which does not respond to antibiotics. Others believe that ongoing symptoms indicate the presence of an active infection, and that longer treatment duration can be helpful. At any rate, because all medical treatments have risks attached to them, the ideal approach is to detect and to begin to treat Lyme disease, early.
The researchers are currently working on developing ways in which data obtained from smart watches can be integrated into medical practice. Privacy is one issue, they noted – some patients may wish to keep some information to themselves. Further investigation is required to determine how biosensors can help both doctors and patients in the long run. However, on the whole, the researchers pointed out the huge potential these devices have in helping us maintain longer, healthier, happier lives.