CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

HolidayBuyer's Guide
Commentary Wearable Tech

Wearables can save your life (not that you'd know it)

Commentary: Smartwatches like the Apple Watch and Fitbit Alta HR aren't for me. But they may be for you -- if you want to live.

I nearly suffered a heart attack at the gym a few months ago. At least, I thought I did. I actually just pulled a muscle in my shoulder while warming up on the bench press.

I'm just 25 years young with no health problems that I know of, but I'm also a hypochondriac (and WebMD never helps). Not long ago, I thought I had neck cancer because my lymph nodes expanded following a bout with tonsillitis.

Neck cancer may not be real, but do you know what is? Heart attacks. And did you know shoulder pain is a symptom of a heart attack? Did you?!

Fast forward from the gym incident a couple of weeks, and I hear about Garry Barker. Two years ago, an 82-year-old Barker strapped his Apple Watch on in the morning, only for it to tell him his heartbeat was hovering in the dangerously high 120-150 bpm range. Barker, a journalist here in Sydney, called his doctor, and hours later received emergency treatment.

As it turned out, he had an atrial fibrillation and a blocked artery. Those are often precursors to a stroke and a heart attack. Good catch, Apple Watch.  

Arnold Schwarzenegger Portrait Session

Here's a real picture of me before my scare on the bench press. No big deal.

Getty Images

Earlier this year, I wrote that wearables were only useful if you really dig running (ew). After hearing about Barker, and others like him, I get a strange feeling I was wrong. Or maybe that's just the sensation of a stroke coming on.

Wearables with heart trackers, I now realise, are great for 25-year-old hypochondriacs who can't distinguish joint pain from cardiac arrest. They're even more useful for people who aren't idiots and who have legitimate reason to monitor this type of thing.

boompromo

Click for more Boom With a View.

Be they smartwatches (think Apple Watch 3) or smartbands (Fitbit Alta HR), wearables are usually sold as fitness trackers. They're promoted as devices to help you get sexy, but in some cases can do something much more impressive: keep you alive.

In March, a Fitbit helped a 73-year-old Connecticut woman discover blood clots in both of her lungs. A 34-year-old Australian woman was saved from the same fate as Barker when her own Fitbit detected atrial fibrillation. An Apple Watch detected an unusually high heart rate in a 17-year-old (!) US athlete, leading to the discovery that he had a muscle syndrome called rhabdomyolysis.

Some are already aware of the life-saving potential of wearables, with roughly 17 percent of Americans over the age of 65 using them to monitor their heart health, according to Accenture. But this aspect still feels undersold, especially considering the fitness capabilities that get promoted instead, like being able to count your steps or get reminders to stand up every 30 minutes, don't make the devices must-haves.

With the holiday season approaching, the big companies have been releasing their latest gadgets. Apple's got its new cellular Series 3 Watch, Samsung has sporty new wearables and Fitbit is diving deeper into the smartwatch game with the Ionic. None of these companies are pushing the health-monitoring aspect of their products. Instead, marketing often focuses on these devices being waterproof or stylish, often with the help of obnoxiously attractive models. You know the type. I suppose it's easier to sell the promise of abs than it is to sell an atrial fibrillation detector.

There's also the problem of people over 65 being most likely to find this tech useful, but also the age group least likely to adopt new technology, according to Pew Research.

Younger people, meanwhile, are generally less interested in how well their heart is functioning. Unless they think they can have a bench-press-induced heart attack, which is totally a normal conclusion.

capture

Look at these beautiful jerks.

Fitbit

Sadly, wearable technology is very much in its infancy. The only vital that products from big brands like Apple and Fitbit can read right now is heartbeat. The party will really get started once other organs get in on the action.

But while an Apple Watch or Fitbit that can analyse your lung and liver function is probably years off, there are already some intriguing niche wearables out there. One, for instance, reads your blood-alcohol level, and another aims to fix your posture.

Why aren't these sort of features in your Apple, Fitbit, Samsung or Garmin tracker yet? The answer may be less about technical limitations and more about legal and regulatory ones. That's at least true in the US, where anything that crosses the threshold into an actual medical device becomes subject to regulation and approval by the Food and Drug Administration. That comes with much more rigorous requirements than consumer-grade heart-rate trackers. 

Still, the industry is slowly but surely moving in that direction. Apple has reportedly joined at least one clinical study designed to make the Apple Watch a more effective heart monitor. And the company is widely rumored to be working on glucose monitoring, too. Fitbit, meanwhile, is aiming for its new Ionic fitness watch to help detect sleep apnea

Regulators are down with the program too, with Apple, Samsung and Fitbit all joining an FDA program designed to fast-track approval for more medical applications in consumer-level devices.

That leveling up can't happen soon enough. Because in the meantime, the wearables you can buy sometimes feel like they're just running in place.

Rebooting the Reef: CNET dives deep into how tech can help save Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Solving for XX: The industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."