Smartwatches found to be potentially deadly – experts raise ‘red flag’

Monitoring your health has never been easier than in this high-tech era. Whether you’re on a busy tube or catching up with friends over coffee, just a quick glance on a smartwatch can update you about your heart rate, blood oxygen levels and sleep patterns. However, a new study from the University of Utah warns that these wearable devices could be potentially deadly for a small group of people.

From watches to rings, wearable devices could interfere with cardiac implantable electronic devices (CIEDs) such as pacemakers, implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs), and cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) devices.

This means that the technology designed to keep you updated about your health could compromise it instead, according to new research, published in the journal Heart Rhythm.

Lead author Dr Benjamin Sanchez Terrones, a computer engineer at Utah University in the US, said: “This study raises a red flag.

“We’ve done this work in simulations and benchtop testing following Food and Drug Administration accepted guidelines.

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“These gadgets interfere with the correct functioning of the CIEDs we tested.

“These results call for future clinical studies evaluating the translation of our findings to patients wearing CIEDs and using these wearable devices.”

Smart devices, including smart scales, utilise a sensing technique called bioimpedance, which emits a very small, imperceptible current of electricity into your body.

The researchers evaluated the functioning of three cardiac CRT devices while applying the same electrical current.

Dr Sanchez Terrones said: “Bioimpedance sensing generated an electrical interference that exceeded Food and Drug Administration accepted guidelines and interfered with proper CIED functioning.”

Simulations and lab tests suggested they could cause unnecessary shocks to the heart.

In the case of a pacemaker, which sends small electrical impulses to the heart when it is beating too slowly, the bioimpedance’s tiny electrical current could trick the heart into thinking it is beating fast enough, preventing the pacemaker from doing its job.

Co-author Prof Benjamin Steinberg said: “We have patients who depend on pacemakers to live.

“If the pacemaker gets confused by interference, it could stop working during the duration that it is confused.

“If that interference is for a prolonged time, the patient could pass out or worse.”

Furthermore, implantable cardioverter-defibrillators don’t only act as a pacemaker but they can also shock the heart to restore a regular heart rhythm.

A wearable device with bioimpedance could trick the defibrillator into delivering the patient an electric shock, which can be painful.

Nearly all if not all implantable cardiac devices come with a warning about the potential for interference with a variety of electronics due to magnetic fields, such as carrying your phone in the breast pocket near your pacemaker.

But Dr Sanchez-Terrones said this is the first time a study has discovered problems associated with a gadget’s bioimpedance sensing technology.

He said: “The scientific community doesn’t know about this. No one has looked at whether this is a real concern or not.”

While this research doesn’t convey an immediate or clear risk to patients who wear these devices, it’s a first step to further research. The team now plans to conduct more studies and test a broader cohort of devices.

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