Will your next sign of serious illness be on your wrist?

There is no doubt that expos like the most recent Consumer Electronic Show whet our appetite for what “could be.”  While much of it approaches gadgets right out of science fiction, there truly is a bright future for technology that is worn on the body. Case in point: wearable fitness trackers.

Those who wear the biosensing devices (Apple watch, Fitbit, etc.) commonly have specific reasons for employing an electronic tool that monitors their health. And their popularity is growing as there currently are over 60 different types of them on the market.  Those who purchase and use the fitness-focused wearables tend to be older and more affluent than those who wear smartwatches.

Most devices are synced to a mobile phone app or PC program that accumulates the statistics and data generated by the user’s body.  Some can be strapped to the wrist, while others are attached to clothing or worn around the neck.  And while steps/stairs, heart rate and distance covered are the most common results reported, researchers have taken this data to new heights.



Stanford University geneticist Michael Snyder already knew that he had an increased risk of developing diabetes and since he was a runner, using a fitness tracker was a part of his routine. But being a scientist got the better of him and he strapped on eight of them every day for two years to see what differences there were between them, if any.

The similarities and disparities, as well as the likelihood of capturing other data became clear to him. He and his colleagues magnified these efforts by engaging 60 volunteers to wear these devices, many of whom wore up to seven devices daily for as long as 11 months.

The value in all of this?  Distinct data on heart rate, blood oxygen, calories expended and skin temperature, among others, were captured in real time.  But here is the true significance that the fitness trackers can bring:

Snyder tracked himself getting sick several times. Once, on a flight to Norway, his devices picked up something strange. His blood oxygen level did not bounce back as usual. Then they showed he had developed a low-grade fever. On a hunch, Snyder—who recalled being in a possible tick habitat in Massachusetts a week earlier—asked a doctor to test him for Lyme disease. He was diagnosed at the earliest stage of the often grueling illness, when treatment has the best chance to succeed. Without the tracking, Snyder says, he would likely have ignored the signs until his infection was more advanced.”

The Stanford study, published online in January, 2017 in PLOS Biology, also noted that several volunteers had higher-than-normal readings for skin temperature and heart rate.  Corresponding lab tests showed that many of them exhibited an increase in the blood marker level for inflammation.  The stunning implication here is that a correlation between real time data and real time laboratory results could translate into detection of a higher risk for autoimmune or heart disease, an infection or even cancer.

Researchers analyzed the differences in the volunteer’s daytime and night time heart rates and the total of their daily steps.  They then developed a specific mathematical calculation that predicted which volunteers had a condition that could lead to prediabetes and diabetes itself.


It is a well-known fact that 9.3% of the US population had diabetes in 2012 and approximately 27.8% of people with diabetes don’t even know they have it! The ability to use a device like a fitness tracker that monitors the human body to predict the occurrence of diabetes is phenomenal. “Personal biosensors could potentially be developed into a simple test for those at risk for Type 2 diabetes by detecting variations in heart rate patterns, which tend to differ from those not at risk.”

The study demonstrated that, given a baseline range of values for each person, it is possible to monitor deviations from normal and associate those deviations with environmental conditions, illness or other factors that affect health. Distinctive patterns of deviation from normal seem to correlate with particular health problems. Algorithms designed to pick up on these patterns of change could potentially contribute to clinical diagnostics and research.

But as with all “new” discoveries, there are caveats. Euan Thomson, whose company AliveCor is working on creating what could be termed “health wearables” noted that conditions like heart disease cannot yet be detected by fitness trackers because the trackers record heart rate.  Typically heart disease is diagnosed through measurements of the heart’s electrical activity or ECG. So more intensive study and clinical correlation of significant data is needed before fitness trackers can be relied upon for detecting “real life” diseases or problems.

Thomson says he can envision people using wearables to track themselves slowly increasing their exercise levels after a heart surgery, allowing them to go home instead of staying in residential rehab.  “Their doctor could say something like, ‘I want to measure your heart rate while you take 2,000 steps over the next few weeks. Then I want to increase your exercise to 6,000 steps. I don’t want your heart rate going above 80 beats per minute,’ ” he says.

This targeted market has tended to be mostly ignored by Silicon Valley, while on the flip side the amount of money being spent on devices that are created with few applications for health care is striking.

None of these devices are approved by the FDA yet, which means that clinical trials and FDA approval will be needed to substantiate that the results are accurate.  While analyzing and creating protocols that would be useful for predicting infections and disease still needs to be done, nonetheless the outlook is bright for the use of fitness trackers as a predictor of a future illness. And early detection, and even possible prevention, is the key to healthy longevity.

As our body’s age, we tend to encounter more and more illnesses and disorders which can affect our quality of life.  Having the ability to predict or even plan ahead for those “bumps in the road” could significantly impact overall national expenditures on health care and create a much more proactive, rather than reactive, personal approach to wellness.


Millard, Elizabeth. “Your Fitness Tracker May Soon Know When You’re Sick Before You Do.”  Rodale, Inc. http://www.menshealth.com. 13 January 2017. Web. 13 January 2017.

Weintraub, Karen.  “Fitness Bracelets May Warn of Serious Illness.”  Nature America, Inc. ScientificAmerican.com. 12 January 2017. Web. 13 January 2017.

Li, Xiao, et al.  “Digital Health: Tracking Physiomes and Activity Using Wearable Biosensors Reveals Useful Health-Related Information.”  PLoS. 12 January 2017. Web. 13 January 2017.

Weiner, Sophie.  “5 reasons why wearables aren’t taking on heart disease…yet.”  Fast Company & Inc. fastcodesign.com. 8 May 2015.  Web.  10 October 2016.

Beal, Abigail.  “Not Just a Fitness Monitor: Wearable Trackers Can Spot Infections and Illness Before Symptoms Appear.”  Associated Papers, Ltd. Dailymail.co.uk. 12 January 2017.  Web. 1 February 2017.

Image: Lauren Ahn
Image: https://ae01.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1xMiSKFXXXXXsXXXXq6xXFXXXZ/As-Seen-On-Tv-Product-2016-Smartwatch-I95-font-b-Free-b-font-mp3-Music-font.jpg: Lauren Ahn



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