If you haven’t heard of FitBit, it’s a digital wristband company that creates products worn like watches to track activity and movement. Users track how many steps they’ve taken each day and set goals that the devices then remind them of throughout the day. They are essentially tools that aid in the process of getting healthier and moving more.
Now, FitBit is attempting to use the data it collects to help with diagnosis of sleep apnea and irregular heartbeat, or afibrillation. FitBit reports having over 105 billion hours of heart-rate data already and 6 billion nights’ worth of sleep data. This is all in addition to the 200 billion minutes of exercise tracking data collected.
"So many people go undiagnosed from this dangerous sleeping disorder," said Dr. Amy Norman of Everett, Washington, who takes sleep apnea treatment very seriously at her dental practice. "It can lead to complications that can result in death. We have to start taking it more seriously and bring awareness to symptoms in order to increase the diagnosis rate."
The Dangers of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea causes a pause in breathing during sleep that can present itself in the form of snoring or gasping for air repeatedly throughout the night. Although many sleep apnea sufferers don’t recall these episodes, they can be dangerous.
"As oxygen levels in the blood drop, your blood pressure goes up," Norman said. "This can make existing high blood pressure an even bigger problem or lead to high blood pressure in someone who was otherwise healthy."
In addition to high blood pressure, the effects of sleep apnea on the heart can cause strokes and atrial fibrillation, or afibrillation. This involves an irregular, fast heartbeat.
"Another problem with sleep apnea that many people don’t consider is the risk to those around the person when they’re operating a motor vehicle or equipment at work," said Norman.
Recently, two commuter train accidents that injured many people were found to have been caused by sleep apnea-related complications in the engineers driving, sparking a renewed interest in programs to screen for sleep apnea among mass transit operators.
Current Obstacles to Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
For now, diagnosing sleep apnea involves an advanced sleep study at a lab. Many people avoid this for as long as possible because it is inconvenient, time consuming and can cause some anxiety. The study is only conducted if a doctor first recognizes the patient's symptoms as potentially related to sleep apnea, which Norman says is part of the problem.
"For too long doctors only considered sleep apnea in middle-aged, overweight men, when women and even children often suffer from the sleep disorder," she said. "It’s not intentional - the symptoms are just commonly mistaken for other conditions. But as we drive awareness, more doctors are correctly diagnosing the problem."