Smartwatches as medical devices: how your smartwatch could save your life

Carlton Boyce / 20 August 2018 ( 14 May 2019 )

Smartphones and smartwatches have earned their place in our lives - but could they go one step further and actually save our lives?

I’m not a fan of stuff. Stuff clogs your life up and traps you into a never-ending arms race to buy the latest, newest and shiniest gizmo on the market. 

And yet, even I have to admit that smartphones and smartwatches have earned their place in our lives. Clever beyond comprehension at times, the use to which they can be put are limited, literally, by our imagination – and none could be more important than saving your life…

1. Increased heartbeat without moving

Your smartwatch will almost certainly be monitoring your heartbeat, something it does with a similar level of accuracy to anything you might find in a hospital.

It also monitors how physically active you are (whether you’re walking running, or doing anything else that might lead to a natural and totally normal rise in heartrate) and will alert you if your heartbeat rises significantly without you moving. 

While this led to a spate of humorous screenshots on social media as the nation’s heartbeat rose (sometimes to alarming levels!) during some of England’s matches in the latter stages of the World Cup, it can also signify the onset of heart problems; if your heart starts to beat very fast when you’re sitting still, for example, you might be in trouble. 

So, if your watch warns you of this you should seek medical advice immediately; call 999 if you have any of these symptoms: NHS guide to heart attack symptoms, otherwise call 111 to seek advice from a healthcare professional.

One woman's heart attack

2. Sustained rise in heartrate

You should also get into the habit of regularly checking your resting heartbeat because a sustained rise could indicate an underlying problem like an overactive thyroid, clogged arteries, or even a blood clot.

Of course, while a poor night’s sleep or even a minor medical problem like a cold will usually lead to a small rise over a few days, anything more significant or of a longer duration should be investigated by your doctor.

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3. Sustained fall in heartrate

Of course, while a sustained rise in heartrate (known as tachycardia) is of concern, so is a sustained decrease because bradycardia (as it’s known) can also indicate a problem too. 

While it varies considerably from person to person, a resting heart rate of under 60bpm (beats per minute) could lead to problems such as fainting, tiredness and dizziness.

Again, if this sounds familiar, please seek medical advice from your doctor or by calling the NHS non-urgent helpline on 111. 

4. Counting steps

Your smartwatch will also count the number of steps you take – and more steps should equal a healthier lifestyle, better health, lower bodyweight, and therefore a decreased risk of developing some medical conditions.

So, why not set your daily target at something a little more challenging? The standard is 10,000 steps a day, or around 5 miles – which might sound a lot but would mean you are still only classed as being ‘moderately active’ – but you should build up to this over a number of weeks or even months if you’re not used to walking that far.

Find out more about the tech to keep you fit

5. Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a medical condition whereby a person actually stops breathing for a time while they are sleeping. It’s very common, affecting around 4% of the female population and up to 9% of the male, and while the periods of breath cessation are usually under ten seconds, it can lead to a number of serious health problems not least of which is the risk posed by simply being exhausted in the daytime because the sufferer is so tired.

FitBit is currently looking into using its smartwatches to track and measure sleep apnea but in the meantime, try wearing your smartwatch to bed and then take a look at your sleeping pattern. If you are spending a lot of time awake – usually signified by a red marker – or are very restless, then you might be suffering from sleep apnea. 

Again, if you think you might be then please seek advice from a medical professional if you think this is a problem.

Dealing with sleep apnoea

6. Blood pressure

While no smartwatch can currently measure your blood pressure, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is expected to be able to when it is released later this year.

Details are sparse at the moment but it is thought that it will an optical sensor to collect bio-data from your fingertip to be able to calculate your blood pressure with a reasonable level of accuracy. One to keep an eye on if you suffer from high or low blood pressure.

7. Seizures

If you, or someone you know, suffers from seizures or epileptic fits, then Pebble Seizure Detect might be of interest.

It’s a third-party app for the Pebble smartwatch that links via an Apple iPhone and sends a text message giving the location when it detects the wearer is having a seizure.

Setting it up will take a fair degree of technological savvy as it’s being provided free-of-charge as opensource software but projects like this have a habit of encouraging more mainstream, user-friendly products.

Like Embrace, a smartband that does much the same as the Pebble Seizure Detect app but without the faff of setting it up. It’s more expensive than the Pebble option at $249 but it does come with a two-year warranty and measures sleep too.

Bonus tip: If you’ve got an iPhone then the first thing you should do is to take a look at this great article that uncovers a wealth of features that might just save your life in an emergency.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.