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A woman from New Jersey lives because her Apple Watch alerts her to an increased heart rate. It turned out she had fluid in her heart due to a viral infection.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – A big study says that the Apple Watch can at least sometimes detect a disturbing irregular heartbeat – but experts say more work is needed to determine whether the use of wearable technology for heart problems really works helpful. [19659006] More than 419,000 Apple Watch users have signed up for the unusual trial. This makes it the largest that has screened seemingly healthy people for atrial fibrillation, a condition that can eventually lead to strokes if left untreated.

Researchers at Stanford University reported on Saturday that the clock did not scare panic of people who warned only half a percent of participants (about 2,100) of a problem.

A user checks his Apple Watch (Photo: Apple)

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But even among the marked ones, "it's not perfect," Dr. Richard Kovacs of the American College of Cardiology, who was not involved in policing, study.

Persons who received a warning should consult a medical examiner by telemedicine and then wear an ECG patch to measure heart activity for the next week to determine the accuracy of the watch. Some skipped the virtual exam to consult their own doctors. Overall, about 57 percent sought medical help.

Among those who received the ECG monitoring by the study had a third atrial fibrillation, according to preliminary results, which were presented at a conference of the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans.

A-fib tends to come and go, and a week of surveillance may have overlooked some cases, said Stanford research scientist dr. Mintu Turakhia. However, if the watch detected another irregular heartbeat while someone wore the ECG patch, that was 84 percent of the time it really was a-fib.

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"This study, which we believe provides very encouraging evidence that a device, the Apple Watch, is used to detect A- Fib can be used and show people when additional monitoring or testing is needed, "Dr. Lloyd Minor Stanford's Dean of Medicine.

Other heart experts said the study, which was funded by Apple, suggests that screening with wearable technology might be technically feasible, but needs much more research.

"I would not recommend that to the entire population," Dr. Valentin Fuster, director of Mount Sinai Heart New York and former president of the American Heart Association, who was not involved in the study. Instead, he would like to test it in seniors with risk factors such as high blood pressure.

What is atrial fibrillation?

A-fib occurs when the upper chambers of the heart, the so-called atria, are out of sync with the pumping action of the lower chambers. Sometimes patients feel a flutter or a racing heart, but often they do not know about an episode.

Sometimes the heart gets back into rhythm itself. Other patients get an electric shock to get back into rhythm, or blood thinners are prescribed to prevent the stroke that causes blood clots, which can cause untreated a-fib. A-fib causes 130,000 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations annually in the United States.

How do doctors check this?

A-fib is most common in older adults, and other risks include high blood pressure or arrhythmia in the family. However, routine screening is not recommended for people without symptoms. Studies have not yet proven that screening screening prevents enough strokes to overcome the risk of unnecessary testing or over-treatment.

How does the Apple Watch test this?

A mobile app uses the optical sensor on certain versions of the watch for pulse rate data analysis. If enough deviations are detected from beat to beat over a period of 48 hours, the user receives a warning of an irregular heart rhythm.

The latest version of the Apple Watch also allows the wearer to press a button to take an ECG and exchange the reading with physicians. Saturday's study did not include watches with this capability.

Does the new study show that mass screening is a good idea?

No. The study was designed to show what the watch looked like when compared to a week of standard ECG monitoring – not when the wearer's health improved because screening revealed the arrhythmia. Years of research are needed to prove that early detection of A-fib risk poses a risk of stroke.

Because the study had no comparison group with routine ECGs, it can not be determined if the watch missed heartbeat problems. Wrong security, said Kovacs.

The puzzling low alarm numbers could be due to the fact that most participants were young or middle-aged, not the seniors who are most at risk for a-fib,

The Department of Health and Science of Associated Press is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. All content is the sole responsibility of the AP.

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The Apple Watch Series 4 ECG app detects AFib, a common cause of stroke.
Robert German, USA TODAY

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