Singapore, 20 March 2018 – A team of scientists in Singapore has found that wearable sensors are not just useful for personal fitness tracking, but can also enhance biomedical research and predict cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. 

The increasing availability and take-up of consumer-grade wearable sensors prompted interest in how these devices can contribute to biomedical research. The research team from the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine (PRISM) and National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) studied 233 volunteers using clinical approaches and multiple wearable technologies. The sensors were used to monitor the subjects’ activities and heart rates. In addition, lifestyle questionnaires, cardiac imaging, serum lipidomics (profiling of fats in the blood) and a battery of clinical tests were administered. 

The study’s findings revealed that wearable sensors are able to identify groups of volunteers with similar patterns of daily activity and predict risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar. The study’s findings have been published in the journal PLOS Biology1.

A major finding was that wearable activity data can be used to identify active individuals at increased risk of having enlarged hearts, a condition known as “athlete’s heart”, commonly seen in competitive athletes like runners or cyclists. Although it is a largely benign condition, “athlete’s heart” can be confused with more dangerous heart conditions. This is the first time a study has looked at the association between daily activities and “athlete’s heart” through the use of wearable sensors.

“An enlarged left ventricle in the heart can be caused by heart disease or it can also be a harmless adaptation to sustained exercise, and these two conditions share overlapping features. Activity data from wearables may help us identify individuals who are more likely to have an enlarged heart due to exercise, as opposed to more worrisome causes of a big heart,” said Professor Stuart Cook, Director, National Heart Research Institute Singapore, Deputy Director (Clinical), SingHealth Duke-NUS PRISM and Tanoto Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. Prof Cook had also led a related study on 1,000 individuals in the UK, which found that exercise-related cardiac changes are not confined to athletes. 

Associate Professor Yeo Khung Keong, Senior Consultant, Department of Cardiology, NHCS said, “Our study suggests that wearables may in the future play a role in aiding the diagnosis of heart conditions. We hope to expand this further. In the coming years, the team plans to further examine wearable-sensor data in cohorts of patients with heart diseases.”

“This study has shown how activity data could help define risk markers for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Since activity data is readily available with wearable technologies, future studies could even be conducted using wearable sensor data donated by the public.” said Professor Patrick Tan, Director, SingHealth Duke-NUS PRISM and Professor, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme, Duke-NUS. 

Funding for this study was provided by SingHealth, Duke-NUS Medical School, NHCS, Singapore National Medical Research Council, the Lee Foundation and the Tanoto Foundation.