Sleep apnea explained: The sleep disorder that Fitbit hopes to crack

We break down what it is and how wearables and trackers are looking to tackle it

In case you missed it, Fitbit has confirmed numerous times now that the wearable tech heavyweight is interesting in tracking sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that apparently affects 18 million Americans.

Fitbit CEO James Park has said that the Fitbit Ionic could be used in the future to diagnose disorders such as sleep apnea and high blood pressure, so Fitbit is clearly aiming to go beyond basic fitness like step tracking and to go into more advanced health sensing.

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

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.

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 Fitbit can help diagnose and treat it, it could improve the lives of millions of people.

How it's diagnosed

Usually by taking part in a sleep study, which can involve 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 says it's 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.

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 Hugh got a doctor to check his 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).

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 by also analysing your sleep routine.

Why Fitbit 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 Fitbit 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 happening

While we know the Ionic has the technology to track sleep apnea, we're going to have to wait quite a bit for it to actually happen. That's because Fitbit is going to spend a good amount of time doing nothing but collect data so that it can tweak its algorithms and prepare its 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, like if it needs FDA approval and other regulatory means. Additionally, Fitbit is balancing this alongside other health features it's looking toward, like atrial fibrillation.

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