Smartwatches and Heart Health

A smartwatch — a digital wristwatch that pairs with the user’s smartphone — can do more than send message notifications and news updates. It can also help you manage your health, from counting your daily steps to keeping track of your heart rate.

“Smartwatches can be beneficial for people who want to live a healthier lifestyle,” says Dr. Garrett Sanford, a cardiologist at Washington Regional Cardiovascular Clinic, part of the Washington Regional Walker Heart Institute. “Many people want to track their heart rate, they want to eat better, they want to organize their blood pressure log or their blood sugar readings. I think smartwatches come in very, very handy for this.”

Sanford says some smartwatches can even help detect atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious condition in which the upper chambers of the heart, known as the atria, quiver instead of beating effectively. Atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, can lead to complications including blood clots. “When the top of the heart quivers instead of following a normal structured contraction, you run the risk of forming a thrombus, which is a blood clot. A blood clot can go to the brain and cause a stroke,” he says.

The smartwatch algorithm that indicates whether a heartbeat is following a normal rhythm or is in atrial fibrillation is generally accurate, Sanford says, although it might occasionally send an alert when it has simply detected an extra heartbeat. But detecting and treating A-fib early is crucial, so if your smartwatch sends an A-fib alert, you should contact your primary care provider right away. That alert might be the only indication that you have A-fib.

“Atrial fibrillation can be asymptomatic, meaning a person might have no symptoms at all,” Sanford says. But most people will experience at least one A-fib symptom, such as:

  • Palpitations or a sense of “fluttering” or irregular heartbeat in the chest
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Exhaustion

As valuable as smartwatches can be in managing your health, Sanford says, they are not a replacement for regular visits with a primary care provider, who can offer diagnostic testing, recommend lifestyle changes, prescribe medications and refer you to a cardiologist if needed. He cautions that a smartwatch cannot detect a stroke, predict a heart attack or detect other types of heart arrhythmias.

“It can’t help you manage your lipids, weight or high blood pressure. It doesn’t replace routine follow-up with your primary care doctor,” Sanford says. “That is going to be a lot more important than relying on a smartwatch for detection of atrial fibrillation.”

For more information, visit Washington Regional Cardiovascular Clinic.