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What health problems can an Apple Watch detect?

Apple Watch ECG app

The Apple Watch has been a good fitness tracker since its launch in 2015. With each subsequent generation it gets additional hardware features. The latest Apple Watches can detect and monitor a number of different health conditions.

Note: The Apple Watch is not a medical device

First, I have to make two big caveats. The Apple Watch is in no way a substitute for your doctor, neither is the Internet, nor am I (check my biography: I̵

7;m just a writer).

This article will give you an overview of the various health problems that the Apple Watch may be able to detect. Be aware that the device cannot diagnose you. If you are concerned about the various measurements or results you are getting from any of the sensors, please contact your doctor.

The Apple Watch is also relatively new. A lot of research is still being done (you can even participate if you want) under which conditions it can possibly monitor. Of course, we won’t see the results of those studies for a while.

The Apple Watch is not a medical device, it is a smartwatch. If you have (or are concerned) a condition that needs to be monitored, you know what to do: Talk to your doctor.

Now let’s take a look at what an Apple Watch can detect now (with the research to back it up).

High and low heart rate

Apple Watch heart rate alert

The Apple Watch has two ways to measure your heart rate:

  • Apple Watch Series 1 or later: Uses an optical heart rate sensor.
  • Apple Watch Series 4 or later (excluding the first SE model released in 2020): Uses an electrical heart sensor used by the EKG app.

In any watch that has it, the optical heart rate sensor can detect whether you have an abnormally high or low heart rate. If your heart rate remains above 120 bpm after 10 minutes of inactivity or below 40 bpm for 10 minutes, you will be notified by default.

If you want to change the thresholds, you can do that in the Watch app on your iPhone. Just go to ‘Heart’ and set a new value for ‘High heart rate’ and ‘Low heart rate’.

heart option highlighted in the watch applow and high heart rate alert options highlighted in the watch app

The electrical heart sensor only works when you use the ECG app. It’s like those beeping machines you see in medical dramas, and it requires a much more accurate measurement of your heart rhythm. If you’re experiencing intermittent heart symptoms – such as your heart skipping a beat or a fast heart rate – you can record an EKG with the app and then share it with your doctor. During a telemedicine consultation, your doctor may even ask you to use it.

However, when measuring heart rate, keep in mind that what is normal for one person may be abnormal for another. For example, I haven’t turned on low heart rate alerts because I have a relatively low resting heart rate – it hovers just below 45 beats per minute.

For someone else, a heart rate of less than 50 beats per minute may be a cause for concern. Likewise, the high heart rate alerts are only activated when your heart rate is high and you are inactive. So don’t worry – you won’t let it go when you go for a run.

Always remember that if you are concerned about anything, call your doctor.

Abnormal heart rhythms

the authors beautiful normal heart rate

In addition to your heart rate, Apple Watch can also measure your heart rhythm. Specifically, it checks for atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is when the upper chambers of your heart are beating irregularly. It could be a serious medical condition or a symptom of it.

The Apple Watch can be particularly useful with AFib as it can detect intermittent events. Conditions such as AFib can be difficult to diagnose because they don’t always occur when sitting comfortably in a doctor’s office.

Again, there is a pretty heavy dose reserved for this feature:

  • The Apple Watch’s ability to detect irregular heartbeat is backed by a large-scale study, but it doesn’t measure constantly. You could have AFib and never get notified. There may also be false positives meaning you will be notified but you do not have AFib.
  • This feature is only available in certain countries due to different requirements. In Australia, for example, the Apple Watch would have to be approved as a medical device to enable this feature.
  • It is not intended for use in people under the age of 22 or in people who have already been diagnosed with AFib.

You must also enable irregular heartbeat detection. To do this, open the Health app on your iPhone, go to Heart> Irregular Rhythm Notifications, then tap ‘Set Notifications’. You will then need to provide some information to confirm that it is right for you.

setting irregular heart rate notificationsconsent form for irregular heartbeat notifications

Warning: The Apple Watch does not check for heart attacks. If you have symptoms of a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention.

Warns you of loud environments

noise app alert

Hearing loss does not normally occur quickly but develops slowly over time. The more time you spend in noisy environments, the worse it is likely to get. However, you can prevent this.

The Noise app (available on the Apple Watch SE and Series 4 or higher) can measure the level of background noise and let you know if it is above a certain threshold (default 80 dB). Then you can use earplugs or go somewhere quieter. At the very least, you know that you may be damaging your ears.

To set this feature or change the threshold, go to Settings> Noise on your watch.

Detects when you fall

The elderly are not the ones to worry about slips or falls. Anyone can fall off a bike, slide in the shower, or tumble down a ladder. Fortunately, your Apple Watch can tell when this is happening and automatically call emergency services, which can save your life.

However, as always, there are a few caveats. There is no guarantee that your Apple Watch will detect all falls. You can also trigger false positives, especially if you are young and active.

When you set up your watch, you are given the option to turn on fall detection. If you haven’t, or if you want to check again, do the following.

What the future looks like

The Apple Watch Series 6 just added a blood oxygenation sensor (SpO2). For now, it is explicitly a fitness and wellness tool, rather than a medical or health monitoring function. However, we can assume that this will change in the future. Low blood oxygen saturation levels are associated with common conditions, such as asthma, sleep apnea and COVID-19.

Apple recently announced that it is conducting studies on a variety of health conditions, including asthma, heart failure, the flu and COVID-19. Just a few years ago, a research paper showed how an Apple Watch could predict diabetes and hypertension.

While these capabilities are currently limited to the areas of research, it can’t be long before they make their way onto your wrist.

RELATED: Which Apple Watch should you buy?

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