The Apple Watch Series 4 promises to look after your health better than its predecessors, taking care of your heart. The new features introduced this week go beyond the older models of the Apple Watch (19459003), which could easily measure heart rate during exercise and recovery.
The latest Apple Watch is the first consumer smartwatch to create an electrocardiogram (ECG or ECG – Apple uses ECG) that can help you hear about your heart health.
Do you know the devices that you see in a hospital that represent a patient's heartbeat as a distorted line? This is a live ECG.
What exactly can an ECG tell about your heart? And how can the Apple Watch mimic something traditionally used in hospitals? Let's find out ..
What is an electrocardiogram?
According to the American Heart Association, an ECG is merely "a test that measures the electrical activity of the heartbeat." An electrical signal first causes compression of the upper and then lower heart valves to pump blood.
With an ECG, doctors can examine the rhythm and speed of this electrical signal traveling through your heart to detect all sorts of problems, from harmless irregular rhythms (also called arrhythmias) to cardiac arrest.
ECGs can also detect this when doctors are overworked or enlarged parts of their heart. These two conditions can mean heart disease or heart valve problems.
By the way, an ECG is not the same as an echocardiogram. Echocardiograms are essentially an ultrasound of your heart that can detect tumors, heart valve problems, blockages and more.
How does the Apple Watch carry an ECG?
The Apple Watch Series 4 is the first smartwatch to receive FDA-approved ECG monitoring. Previously, you could only use the Apple Watch to perform an ECG if you bought the KardiaMobile bracelet.
Electrodes on the back of the watch and in the digital crown measure the electrical impulses of your heart. By holding your finger on the crown while the watch is on your wrist, these sensors work together to perform an ECG.
The process is as follows: You open the ECG app (available later this year) and are prompted to hold your finger on the crown. Once you do that, the clock starts measuring the electrical signal and displays the real-time waveform of your heart – these classic snake lines that visualize a heartbeat – in real time.
The app records the complete waveform and saves it so that you can show it to your doctor as needed.
The watch's ECG app and S4 processor then analyze the captured data and give you a heart rhythm classification – more on that in a second.
Traditional ECG devices have 12 electrodes with electrodes attached all over to measure the electrical signals. Apple compares what the Apple Watch Series 4 does with a single-lead ECG that, as research shows, measures the heart's electrical signals as effectively as a 12-channel device.
What can the Apple Watch tell me about my heart?
From what we know from Apple, the ECG app can give you two heart rhythms classifications; a normal "sinus" rhythm or atrial fibrillation (AFib), a serious condition that needs your doctor's attention. If the watch gives you the AFib classification, you will be asked to go to the doctor.
Once the ECG app is available, we can explore all features.
With watchOS 5, the Apple Watch's built-in heart rate monitor also automatically monitors your heart rate and alerts you when it detects signs of AFib.
That's a big deal, because if you go to your doctor for an ECG and your heart beats normally at this time, the test will not show anything. But if you have an irregular heartbeat that shows up intermittently, such as AFib, your watch could catch it.
What You Can not Know
Despite our advances in medical care, the Apple Watch Series 4 and devices like it still can not diagnose you with a disease. They are also no substitute for regular medical tests or health examinations.
The benefit of having an ECG in the Apple Watch is that it can alert you to previously unknown problems and ask you to be examined by a doctor.
Does everyone need an ECG on their wrist? Of course not. But with more medical technology, there is a greater chance of getting medical concerns that have gone undetected or detect an anomaly before it becomes a life-threatening condition.
The Apple Watch Series 4 is just the beginning – expect more and more consumer medical devices in the coming years.
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