Smartwatches, fitness trackers and other body scanning devices could trigger fatal heart attack

A new study found smartwatches, fitness trackers, and other wearable devices could trigger a potentially fatal heart attack in people with cardiac implants.

Health research found common smart devices, including watches, fitness trackers, rings, and at-home smart scales, could potentially cause major cardiac events, including fatal ones, among people with the implants fitted.

The study, led by two electrical and computer engineering professors at the University of Utah, was published in the newest edition of the scientific journal, Heart Rhythm.

The professors set out to test if electromagnetic pulses emitted from these types of smart devices could possibly cause interference with the cardiac implants.

These pulses are medically referred to as bioimpedance technology.

Bioimpedance is described as “a type of sensing technology that emits a very small, imperceptible current of electricity (measured in microamps) into the body”, according to the study.

Three specific cardiac implantable devices, known as CIEDs, were tested against at least a half a dozen commercially available smart devices.

The CIEDs identified in the study are the permanent pacemaker (PPM), implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), and the cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) device.

“This study raises a red flag… we have done this work in simulations and bench-top testing following [US] Food and Drug Administration accepted guidelines, and these gadgets interfere with the correct functioning of the CIEDs we tested,” said Benjamin Sanchez Terrones, one of the research professors in charge of the study.

The mainstream consumer gadgets used in the study include the Fitbit Aria 2 and Withings body composition scales, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, the medical-grade Empatica E4 wrist device, and the Moodmetric stress-measuring smart ring.

Results from the study showed “slight electrical currents from these wearable gadgets can interfere and sometimes confuse cardiac implantable devices into operating incorrectly”.

For example, the pacemaker could interpret the bioimpedance impulses as that of a real beating heart – a problem if the 'real' heart has stopped beating rhythmically.

smart devices heart attack
Image by University of Utah

It is estimated that more than three million people in the United States have a CIED in their bodies.

“We have patients who depend on pacemakers to live,” said Benjamin Steinberg, the second research professor.

“If the pacemaker gets confused by interference, it could stop working during the [time] that it is confused. If that interference is for a prolonged time, the patient could pass out or worse,” Steinberg said.

The study suggests CIEDs may even be affected when holding a smartphone close to the chest, but more research is needed.

Bioimpedance technology was once only available in hospitals, but was quickly adapted for home use “due to the increasing demand of consumers to monitor their own health and the benefits of doing so continuously outside of the hospital setting”, the publication stated.

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