Can Fitness Trackers Detect Sleep Apnea?

We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is important for our health and well being. Sleep apnea is a condition which causes a person’s breathing to become interrupted whilst they are asleep. The effects of sleep apnea can be serious so it is important to look out for signs if it is happening to you.

Can a fitness tracker detect sleep apnea? Fitness trackers generate millions of data points and we are still at the earliest stage of development. Research companies such as cardio.gram are starting to apply machine learning to gain medical insights from the reams of data. Indeed, a recent study from them and the Health Lab at the University of California San Francisco concludes that a fitness tracker can be used to detect common symptoms of sleep apnea. For example, unusual heart rhythm. The research suggests that fitness trackers can identify this key indicator 97% of the time.

What is sleep apnea?

Well, sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that according to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) affects 22 million Americans. Surprisingly, 80% of the cases of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) remain undetected. When left untreated, the disease cannot only be life-damaging but has been shown to greatly reduce life-expectancy.

Other side effects include:

  • Chronic heart failure
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Hyperactivity and poor impulse control in toddlers

We examine how advancement in the fit-tech industry has helped tackle sleep apnea detection. Highlighted also is considerations when purchasing the right tech and brands and products that have revolutionized the niche.

Why Buy a Fitness Tracker to Detect Sleep Apnea

A fitness tracker like the Fitbit Versa comes with sleep tracking which is capable of spotting patterns in how you sleep. A person suffering from sleep apnea is not always aware they have it and a fitness tracker can be really helpful in identifying underlying issues. It isn’t a silver bullet but if your sleep tracking does show a lot of disruptions it may help you decide that it is worth going seeing the doctor to investigate further.

It is clearly an area that manufacturers are taking seriously and performing lots of research. Apple recently purchased a sleep science company called Beddit. Not to be outdone, Fitbit have aggregated billions of nights of sleep data from users device to help them interpret sleep patterns These have then been incorporated into a score known as Sleep Score Beta (Sp02).  The recently launched Fitbit Charge 3 makes use of this functionality.

The clear goal is to provide government certified devices that are capable of automatically discovering sleep apnea and other sleep related issues

An example of the sleep tracking provided by the Fitbit Versa is shown below:-

Fitbit Versa sleep tracking functionality can be used to look for signs of sleep apnea
Fitbit Versa sleep tracking functionality can be used to look for signs of sleep apnea

How Fitness Trackers Detect Sleep Apnea

Just as with most wearable fit-tech, the tracker is worn on the wrist. The sensors keep account of all the data collected including your heart rate, breathing patterns and sleeping cycles. Inbuilt is a number of axis accelerators each monitoring how fast you move in any direction. This data is then transferred to the linked smartphone or laptop and processed by algorithms.

Sleep apnea symptoms occur during sleep. The patient usually stops breathing multiple times triggering the body to try and restore airflow to the chest. During this time, you will usually experience an elevated heart rate and wake up gasping for air parameters essential in providing apt sleep data.

Optical sensors detect how much sleep time the wearer spends in each stage of sleep. This data is assumed to indicate sleep’s quality. According to the to the VP of Research at Fitbit, their activity trackers can now track breathing disruptions which could be telltale signs of underlying sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Additionally, the device accurately tracks sleep cycles helping the user set up a sleeping schedule.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the tracker is only really attached to a single point on your body and will not provide the same results as you would obtain during a sleep study.

Make sure your fitness tracker is set up correctly

To get the most of your fitness tracker’s sleep tracking you need to ensure that you are wearing it correctly and that the settings are appropriate. This quick list should give you an idea of what to look out for:-

  1. Make sure that the sensitivity setting is set correctly – otherwise even the slightest move will be recorded and you are likely to get false positives
  2. Verify the data is sensible – it is important to tally the data from your tracker to make sure it tallies with how you’re feeling. For example, if you feel really tired make sure the reading from the tracker looks the same
  3. Make sure your device is fully charged so it can track the whole night’s sleep
  4. Wear your tracker according to the manufacturer’s guide and make sure it is able to take readings

Choosing the Right Fitness Tracker to Detect Symptoms

When it comes to wearables, the choices are endless. Available are competitive brands offering increasingly neat improvement. Features have improved from the generic sleep and step tracking to heart rate monitoring, increased sensors and smartphone notification.

So how do you choose a fitness tracker that will double as an activity log and detect sleep apnea?

  • Battery life is king
    Needless to say, you need to go for a fitness tracker that has longer battery life. Today, bands fall into two categories: those that need charging every five days via USB cable and those that have batteries last up to 6 months.
  • Accompanying app software
    What gives one sleep tracker competitive advantage over another is the accompanying applications and software. Go for wearables that have the option of downloading the app straight to the watch. For a premium you can get wrist-based access to your schedule.
  • Ease of operation
    How easy it is to sync the data back to your phone or laptop? Can you view the data from a third- party platform? These aspects are especially vital for individuals with little knowhow.
  • Comfort
    Check out the comfort of the design as you will most likely end up wearing the gadget for an extended period.
  • Accessories
    Accessories may include anything that can turn activity trackers into jewelry that matches your personal style. These may include double wrap bracelets, leather straps and pendants.

Related Questions

Can sleep apnea be cured with exercise? Exercise is the ideal treatment for sleep apnea. Several studies have shown that burning sufficiently have shown that burning sufficiently high levels of oxygen through exercise can reduce the severity of the disorder. A regular exercise regime opens up the upper airway preventing obstruction.

What are alternative sleep apnea treatment options? Other than CPAP, sleep apnea patients can wear an oral sleep apnea device preventing the airway from collapsing. Surgery, weight management programs and positional therapy are also alternatives. Most behavioural sleep specialist would also recommend looking into your lifestyle to see what changes can be made to help.