Feb 19 2020

Consumer Tech Makes Breakthroughs in Heart Health

Improvements in sensors and device capacity continue to show promise for the detection and tracking of some cardiac conditions.

Cardiovascular disease continues to be the No. 1 cause of death worldwide. So it’s no surprise a 2018 consumer survey on wearables found that blood pressure and heart health rank among the top biometrics users want to track. 

To do that, they’ll spend more than $10 billion this year on health and fitness technology, according to a new report released in January by the Consumer Technology Association and the Heart Rhythm Society. 

Many of those devices — such as smartwatches, smartphones and virtual reality headsets — offer plenty of nonhealth applications such as texting and gaming, but the underlying technology also lays the foundation for monitoring and improving heart health. Some functions can even facilitate tests and tracking that once required office visits and specialized equipment. 

A simple example is the smartphone camera, which measures heart rate through a process known photoplethysmography. The Apple Watch Series 4 and 5 can also carry out that process to take electrocardiogram (ECG) readings by using light sensitive photodiodes and infrared light. 

Consumer interest in personal ECG readings after the 2018 debut of the Apple Watch Series 4 “is quite encouraging,” says Roeen Roashan, a senior analyst in healthcare technology at IHS Markit. “Most consumer tech companies, including Samsung and Fitbit, have since verged into this area.” 

And more developments are ahead: “Just a few weeks ago, [biometric sensor company] Valencell released very promising data on their photoplethysmogram sensor and its performance in measuring noninvasive continuous blood pressure,” Roashan says. “It outperformed gold-standard upper-arm cuffs.”

Clinical-Grade Heart Diagnostics Offer Insights on the Go

The evolution of consumer electronics is enabling healthcare applications that not too long ago required costly, purpose-built machines. A 2017 study found that plugging an inexpensive, FDA-approved electrode into a smartphone is an effective way to measure blood potassium, which can result in cardiac arrhythmias when potassium levels are too high. 

Last year, the FDA approved AliveCor’s KardiaMobile 6L, a personal ECG device that uses six electrodes to provide even more detailed views of a patient’s heart. The device, which connects to most Android and iOS devices, can record, analyze and display the data in a way that doesn’t require a doctor to interpret. 

AliveCor also helped OMRON Healthcare develop Complete, an at-home monitor that can measure blood pressure and conduct ECG readings; data may be shared with an Android or iOS device running a companion app. 

The device, designed for people with atrial fibrillation, has one main differentiator: “It features medical-grade ECG,” Roashan says. “The combination of blood pressure and ECG goes a long way in terms of heart monitoring.” 

Improvements in battery technology and 5G cellular speeds will give tomorrow’s consumer electronics even greater capacity, says Kinsey Fabrizio, vice president of membership for the Consumer Technology Association.

“At CES 2020, we saw developments in sensors for noninvasive blood glucose monitoring,” Fabrizio says. “We will likely start to see improved accuracy — affording more than fitness and wellness uses — and more ubiquitous collection of data, moving from needing to put on an accessory to ingestible sensors or in-room sensors. 

“In the future, wearables could track calorie intake, cortisol levels, pharmaceutical ingestion and so much more.”

READ MORE: Tools that support virtual care and diagnosis can benefit some patients with heart disease. 

“Hearables” Listen for Heart Trouble, Share Data

Pulsatile tinnitus is the thumping sound that you hear during a strenuous workout. It also can indicate high blood pressure, which makes the carotid artery’s pulsating blood flow easier to hear. 

Earbud-style “hearables” can help monitor this and other vascular conditions. Like other consumer devices, some hearables are designed for consumer applications — such as listening to music and calls — but can monitor heart health too. The Starkey Hearing Technologies’ Livio AI, a hearing aid, also can track a wearer’s heart rate and share that data with its Thrive app.

Some companies, Fabrizio says, are developing “revolutionary” technology that can offer continuous blood pressure monitoring through a device worn in the ear. 

Research also is exploring how hearables also could treat heart conditions via the vagus nerves that run past the ears on their way from the intestines up to the brain. This could leverage treatment methods used for noncardiac conditions, Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, told IEEE Spectrum

Finally, CardioThrive is developing a smartphone-size automated external defibrillator that could easily be worn by people at risk of sudden cardiac arrest to receive a lifesaving defibrillation shock anytime, anywhere.

tdub303/Getty Images