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
Why Fitbit is going after sleep apnea

In case you missed it, a lead research scientist at Fitbit has confirmed that the wearable tech heavyweight is working on devices that can diagnose sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that apparently affects 18 million Americans.

In January last year, Fitbit CEO James Park hinted that the company's devices could be used in the future to diagnose disorders such as sleep apnea and high blood pressure, so it looks like this is something that has been in the works for a while.

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

Whether that device ends up being the Fitbit smartwatch or an entirely new device altogether, we still don't know. What we do know is that over the past year, the king of the fitness tracker has been working to improve how we can track and analyse sleep.

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 optical 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. While we don't have any details on when we can expect this sleep apnea tackling device, it's clear that Fitbit is thinking beyond fitness and is getting really serious about health monitoring as well.

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