The Longevity

Data From Wearable Devices Capable of Predicting Illness

A study led by Stanford University professor reveals how data collected by wearable sensors that already exist in the the marketplace can be used to bring us one step closer to individualized medicine.

It turns out that some of the data logged by our personal tracking devices regarding health—heart rate, skin temperature, even oxygen saturation—appear useful for detecting the onset of illness.

“We think we can pick up the earliest stages when people get sick,” says Michael Snyder, a professor and chair of genetics at Stanford University and senior author of the study, “Digital Health: Tracking Physiomes and Activity Using Wearable Biosensors Reveals Useful Health-Related Information.”

Snyder said his team was surprised that the wearables were so effective in detecting the start of the flu, or even Lyme disease, but in hindsight the results make sense: Wearables that track different parameters such as heart rate continuously monitor each vital sign, producing a dense set of data against which aberrations stand out even in the least sensitive wearables.

In other words, wearables offer such a promising avenue for predicting illness because they can establish each individual’s baseline–and then track changes.

The researchers collected data for up to 24 months on a small study group, which included Snyder himself. Known as Participant #1 in the paper, Snyder benefited from the study when the wearable devices detected marked changes in his heart rate and skin temperature from his normal baseline. A test about two weeks later confirmed he had contracted Lyme disease.

In fact, during the nearly two years while he was monitored, the wearables detected 11 periods with elevated heart rate, corresponding to each instance of illness Snyder experienced during that time. It also detected anomalies on four occasions when Snyder was not feeling ill.

An expert in genomics, Snyder said his team was interested in looking at the effectiveness of wearables technology to detect illness as part of a broader interest in personalized medicine.

“Everybody’s baseline is different, and these devices are very good at characterizing individual baselines,” Snyder says. “I think medicine is going to go from reactive—measuring people after they get sick—to proactive: predicting these risks.”

As it turns out, our current proactive measure–annual physicals–may not be as effective as we thought.

A landmark report in 2012 from the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group of medical researchers, analyzed 14 large trials with more than 182,000 people. The findings: Routine checkups are basically a waste of time. They did little to lower the risk of serious illness or premature death. A news story in Reuters estimated that the US spends about $8 billion a year in annual physicals.

From detecting the onset of diabetes to revealing the fatiguing effects of flying, Snyder’s research shows great potential in wearable sensors for predicting illness.

The study also found that wearables have the potential to detect individuals at risk for Type 2 diabetes. Snyder and his co-authors argue that biosensors could be developed to detect variations in heart rate patterns, which tend to differ for those experiencing insulin resistance.

Finally, the researchers also noted that wearables capable of tracking blood oxygenation provided additional insights into physiological changes caused by flying. While a drop in blood oxygenation during flight due to changes in cabin pressure is a well-known medical fact, the wearables recorded a drop in levels during most of the flight, which was not known before. The paper also suggested that lower oxygen in the blood is associated with feelings of fatigue.

Snyder sees a consumer interface among his next steps following the release of the study.

He hopes to continue the project by improving on the software his team originally developed to detect deviations from baseline health and sense when people are becoming sick.

In addition, Snyder says his lab plans to make the software work on all smart wearable devices, and eventually develop an app for users.

“I think [wearables] will be the wave of the future for collecting a lot of health-related information. It’s a very inexpensive way to get very dense data about your health that you can’t get in other ways,” he says. “I do see a world where you go to the doctor and they’ve downloaded your data. They’ll be able to see if you’ve been exercising, for example.

“It will be very complementary to how healthcare currently works.”

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