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Using This Feature on the Apple Watch Could Improve Your Heart Health

Apple’s Vice President of Health, Sumbul Desai, M.D., explains how their small-scale electrocardiogram can have large-scale results.

PHOTO CREDIT: ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO CREDIT: ALFRED PASIEKA/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/GETTY IMAGES

It’s the last day of February, which happens to be Heart Month. Last year at this time, I started noticing my heart wildly flipping and flopping around in my chest like a live fish on the ground.

I’d agreed to fill in for a close friend’s maternity leave, doing a job I was grossly unqualified for at a heartstopping (flopping!) pace in a super stressful environment. The anxiety it produced interfered with my sleep, exacerbating my usual bouts of insomnia. To survive my extreme exhaustion and stress, I started drinking multiple energy shots a day over several weeks. Then one morning, my partner rested her head on my chest and shot up in alarm: “Something’s wrong. You need to go to the ER now.”

After a long stint in the ER (four doctors were flummoxed, and one thought I was on cocaine, which I was not) and several trips to my cardiologist’s office — a phrase I never imagined I’d use at age 42! — I learned I had premature ventricular contractions (PVCs), irregular beats that begin in one of the heart’s two lower pumping chambers called ventricles. After innumerable tests, and my eliminating caffeine entirely, they miraculously stopped. Then came back again. And left again. The verdict’s still out on what’s up with my most vital organ.

I shared a brief version of my story with Apple’s Vice President of Health, Sumbul Desai, M.D., at the company’s store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on February 21. To spotlight Heart Month, the brand hosted a panel of cardiologists, including Desai, to talk about Apple Watch Series 4’s ECG app.

Ahead of the panel, I sat down with the doctor to ask whether the watch’s electrocardiogram, which assesses the power and rhythm of the electric signals that result in each beat, can detect PVCs. “We’re not designed to catch PVCs, unfortunately,” she said, admitting that she too has experienced them (which somehow soothed my anxiety) and explained that they’re often related to stress and caffeine. The often more serious arrhythmia the watch is designed to catch is called atrial fibrillation (AFib), she told me, which afflicts 2.7 million Americans, and can lead to several heart-related complications such as blood clots and heart failure. “Atrial Fibrillation is when the upper chambers of your heart are not beating in sync with the lower chambers of your heart,” Desai explained.

Last year, after designing a notification to detect tachycardia, a fast heart rate, the company received numerous letters from customers informing them that the new feature alerted them to various health issues — allergic reactions, infections, thyroid issues, and other heart-related conditions — with the hefty bulk of responses revealing they’d been diagnosed with AFib. That put the brand on course to design their latest diagnostic, the science of which is amazing.

Here’s how it works: With the watch snuggly secured on your wrist, put your arm in a resting position on a flat surface. Place the index finger of your other hand on the digital crown (the round dial on the side of your watch) for 30 seconds — and voila!  “It’s an electrical signal that makes your heart beat, so when you put your finger on the digital crown (which contains an electrode, as does the back of the watch) you’re closing the circuit, allowing you to capture your heart’s electrical signals.”

While the watch’s mini-ECG only records one of the 12 waves of electrical signals that a standard electrocardiogram (like the one in a cardiologist’s office) would capture, it still offers useful information that you can amass very quickly and bring to your next doctor visit. You can even send your physician a PDF of your ECGs and the accompanying symptoms you experienced while your heart raced and tripped on the iPhone’s Heart App.

In the future, I hope we can ditch the cumbersome 24-hour heart monitor (aka the Holter, which I’ve had to sport twice in my life so far) and just slip on a sleek watch to catch PVCs and any other heart hiccup that demands immediate attention. When I asked Desai what we can expect from the next iteration of the ECG, she declined to give specifics, but I’m betting on more exciting — and life-saving — innovations to come.   

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