Sleep apnea explained: The sleep disorder that Fitbit and Apple hope to crack

We break down what it is and how wearables and trackers are looking to tackle it
Wearables take on sleep apnea
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Fitbit has confirmed numerous times now that it is interested in tracking sleep apnea. A study conducted by heart health monitoring startup Cardiogram in 2017 revealed that the Apple Watch had the ability to detect subtle patterns associated with the a sleep disorder that apparently affects 18 million Americans. Garmin is also taking a closer look at the serious health condition in a partnership with the University of Kansas Medical Center.

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Sleep apnea is clearly on the agenda for a host of wearable makers, but what is sleep apnea and how can wearables help combat the sleep disorder? We break down the facts to get to grips with it all.

What is sleep apnea?

We've touched on it above, but we haven't delved into what happens when someone suffers with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder where you have one or more shallow breaths and pauses in breathing while sleeping. These pauses in breath can vary in length and disrupt sleep. Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, morning headaches, depression and forgetfulness. It can affect people of all ages and often goes undiagnosed.

Read this: How ResearchKit is being used to study rare diseases

Why it's a big deal

If sleep apnea goes untreated, its knock-on effects are pretty serious. It can lead to an increase in the risk of high blood pressure and obesity, and can even cause a heart attack. It can increase the risk of heart failure or make arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats more likely. So if Apple, Fitbit, Garmin and others can help diagnose and treat it, it could improve the lives of millions of people.

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How it's diagnosed

Usually by taking part in a sleep study, which use a variety of different pieces of tech to monitor sleep quality. These can range from ECG heart rate monitoring to brain wave monitoring and also pulse oximetry.

How Fitbit, Apple and Garmin is going to tackle it

Speaking of pulse oximetry, Fitbit's method to diagnose sleep apnea will apparently be centred around reading heart rate and blood oxygen levels. Using red light and infrared technologies that shine light onto the skin to track blood colour, its sensor will be able to detect when blood oxygen levels lower while someone is sleeping.

In Cardiogram's study, it found that all wearables – whether they be the Apple Watch, Fitbit, Garmin or Wear smartwatches – can detect sleep apnea when paired with its AI neural network called DeepHeart that helps to interpret the data.

How sleep wearables are already taking on sleep apnea

Sleep Apena: The sleep disorder that Fitbit hopes to crack

As our US editor and resident sleep expert Hugh explained in his breakdown of what sleep metrics mean, restless sleep is one of the metrics that sleep monitors and many wearables can record. This describes the time you happen to move in your bed. A significant amount of restlessness could be an indication of sleep related problem and can often be a sign of sleep apnea if you happen to snore a lot too – as was explained when we had a doctor to check our sleep data for signs of apnea. Sometimes however it's just a case of wearables doing guesswork, so don't suddenly assume you have sleep apnea if you're seeing a lot of restless sleep in your data (but it might be good to check with a doctor).

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Apple's ResearchKit medical research platform is also exploring this area, with the American Sleep Apnea Association teaming up with IBM's Watson software to develop a SleepHealth app. Using the Apple Watch and iPhone, the app is able to monitor and study sleep quality using the data to see the effects on productivity, alertness and overall health.

ResMed, the company that sells the gold standard piece of equipment in the treatment of sleep apnea, launched its S+ sleep tracker, a contactless sleep tracker, which sits on your bedside table and goes beyond the usual light sleep/heavy sleep/REM sleep measurements most trackers are capable of by also analysing your sleep routine.

Why wearables could make a difference

Like the companies mentioned above and the tech that's now available to build into health and fitness-focused devices, the tools are already there for wearables to tackle a pretty serious disorder. The key will be putting that optical tech and the software that crunches the data into a package that is capable of delivering reliable data.

When it's going to happen

While we know these wearables clearly have the technology to track sleep apnea, we're going to have to wait quite a while for it to actually happen. That's because these companies are going to need to spend a good amount of time doing nothing but collecting data so that they can tweak their algorithms and prepare their sleep apnea tracking systems first.

Fitbit has promised it'll arrive in the near future, but that may depend on a whole bunch of different factors, such as if it needs FDA approval or other regulatory means. It's likely to be a similar story for its competitors as they continue to explore the health tracking space.