Health & Fitness

Checking your heart rate through the Apple Watch and other devices

Ramona Anderson uses an Apple Watch to track her cardio issues in real time at her home.
Ramona Anderson uses an Apple Watch to track her cardio issues in real time at her home. adiaz@miamiherald.com

When it came to her heart, Ramona Anderson was the picture of health. She was a vegan, never smoked and walked around her Coral Springs subdivision on a daily basis.

One day that changed.

It was April 2016, and 59-year-old Anderson started to feel pain in her chest. She took some pain medication and checked the health app on her Apple Watch. Her heart rate was skyrocketing even though she was sitting still. The data led her to the emergency room, where the retired attorney, now 61, learned she had had a heart attack.

Around 30 million people have taken to the Apple Watch since Apple launched it in 2015. Nearly 61 million own FitBit trackers. Wearers can monitor their heart rate, count their steps and in cases like Anderson’s, potentially save their lives.

Consumers aren’t the only ones taking to this technology. Exercise and healthy eating are the most effective ways to prevent heart disease, and doctors are increasingly using the wearable products to help patients lead healthier, more active lives.

Dr. Sandra Chaparro, a cardiologist with UHealth, uses programs on iPads to monitor heart activity in heart-failure patients who have implanted ventricular assist devices.

Chaparro is Anderson’s cardiologist, who tracks her heart via a dime-sized CardioMEM device implanted in Anderson’s pulmonary artery. Every day, Anderson lies down on a special pillow that communicates with her device to read her cardio statistics. Chaparro and her team at UHealth can check the statistics on an iPad and recommend changes in Anderson’s medication or treatment over the phone.

This technology freed Anderson from keeping track of constant appointments, and the home monitoring scaled her medication from eight prescriptions to two.

“Every time I would get out of a chair, I would fall down. My heart wasn’t strong enough to pump blood fast enough to my brain,” Anderson said. “[The CardioMEM] was remarkable.”

Chaparro said that while most of the technology she uses provides data from devices like CardioMEMS or defibrillators, wearable technology like an Apple Watch can motivate patients to maintain heart-healthy lifestyles.

“It can change behavior, and then we can change reflexes,” she said. “That’s the future. We try to emphasize to the patient that this technology is available now.”

Dr. Ted Feldman, a cardiologist at Baptist Health South Florida’s Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, is “one of those lunatics” who wears both a FitBit and an Apple Watch.

“These days, I probably prescribe as many apps as I do medicines,” Feldman said.

Feldman noted, however, that the data should be used to encourage activity, not necessarily diagnose disease.

A lot of cardiovascular risk factors — think obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes — can be managed by tracking activity on a wearable device and sharing data with doctors. Feldman said the technology gets patients to eat less and move more, which he works into his clinical approach.

“It’s not just throwing technology at them,” he said. “We want to hold them accountable.”

This type of technology has expanded into the research sector as well.

The Apple Heart Study app, for example, can be downloaded to an Apple Watch to identify irregular heart rhythms or point toward serious heart conditions like atrial fibrillation, a leading cause of stroke. The app tracks the wearer’s heart rate and rhythm using LEDs and light sensors, notifying the wearer when irregular rhythms are detected. After the wearer gets a notification, he or she can watch a video consultation, then get connected to a doctor from telehealth provider American Well Corp.

In some cases, the doctor might recommend a patch to monitor the irregular heart rhythm, mailed to participants at no cost. Apple Watch users can also buy an EKG made by AliveCor Inc., an FDA-approved device that is built into the watch’s strap. All the data from the study are analyzed by Stanford Medicine, where Apple’s head of special health projects, Dr. Michael O’Reilly, is a professor of anesthesiology.

Apps developed through Apple’s ResearchKit software tools don’t stop at cardiology. Apps like mPower from the University of Rochester are conducting the largest Parkinson’s Disease study in history, and Autism & Beyond from Duke University screens children for the disease using the front-facing iPhone camera. EpiWatch from Johns Hopkins University predicts seizures using the Apple Watch’s accelerometer and heart rate sensors, and Mole Mapper from Oregon Health & Science University screens for melanoma using the iPhone camera.

Dr. Eli Friedman, a cardiologist with the Memorial Cardiac & Vascular Institute, uses similar technology to help patients monitor their health and encourage physical activity.

An endurance athlete himself, Friedman said he wears a chest strap to track his heart rate when he’s running or cycling. When it comes to wrist-based devices, however, Friedman says they work best while sedentary.

“I give Apple and Stanford credit, but we have to be very cautious in interpreting heart rate monitors that are wrist based,” he said.

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