FitBit is carrying out a study to detect common heart condition AFib - here’s what it is

This is what you need to know about AFib (Photo: Shutterstock)This is what you need to know about AFib (Photo: Shutterstock)
This is what you need to know about AFib (Photo: Shutterstock)

Tracking the number of steps you take is easy with smartwatches and wearable devices.

But now Fitbit is taking health monitoring to a whole new level, as it carries out a study to detect heart condition Atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

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This is everything you need to know about the condition and the technology FitBit is developing.

What is the study being carried out by FitBit?

Fitbit launched the Fitbit Heart Study on 5 May to validate the use of its wearable technology as a means of identifying episodes of irregular heart rhythm, which could suggest atrial fibrillation (AFib).

In a statement FitBit said: “Fitbit wearables have the unique potential to accelerate AFib detection because their 24/7 heart rate tracking is powered by long battery life, which allows users to wear their device for multiple days at a time.

“This enables long term heart rhythm assessment including when users are asleep. The optimal way to identify irregular rhythm through heart rate tracking technology is to screen when the body is at rest, making assessment overnight, while people sleep, ideal for detection.”

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The FitBit Health Study, which is open to FitBit users in the US, asks people to wear their compatible Fitbit tracker or smartwatch, and the company will notify them if they identify an irregular heart rhythm that indicates AFib.

If a user gets a notification, they’ll be connected with a doctor for a free consultation to discuss next steps.

What is AFib?

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) describes AFib as “the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm”.

Those with AFib have an “irregular and sometimes fast pulse” although those with AFib can have a slow pulse rate as well.

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“Atrial fibrillation happens when electrical impulses fire off from different places in the top chambers of the heart (the atria) in a disorganised way,” the BHF explains. “These irregular impulses cause the atria to quiver or twitch, which is known as fibrillation.”

AFib can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

  • Getting older, particularly from the age 65 and up
  • Coronary heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Previous heart or lung surgery
  • Myocarditis, which is the inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Cardiomyopathies, which are disease of the heart muscle
  • An overactive thyroid gland
  • Heart failure
  • Lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • Being overweight, especially if you have sleep apnoea
  • Substance of alcohol abuse

What are the symptoms of AFib?

Symptoms of AFib can include the following:

  • Palpitations, which can feel like thumping or fluttering in your chest
  • Feeling faint
  • Breathlessness
  • Feeling tired

BHF says that sometimes, those with AFib don’t actually experience any symptoms at all - and others mistakenly chalk symptoms up to simply getting older, when that’s not the case.

What are the dangers of having AFib?

The BHF says: “Having [AFib] increases the risk of developing a blood clot inside the chambers of the heart.

“This is because the AFib disturbs the normal flow of blood through the heart, causing turbulence. The turbulence causes the blood to form small clots. If a clot forms in your heart, it can travel through your bloodstream to your brain and cause a stroke.”

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AFib can also make the heart muscles less efficient at pumping blood around your body, which can leave you feeling unwell or tired.

Is there treatment for AFib?

If you are diagnosed with AFib, your doctor will look at ways of controlling the rate and rhythm of your heart.

Treatment could include:

  • Medication, such as beta blockers and anti-arrhythmic drugs
  • Ablation, which uses either heat or freezing to create scar tissue which breaks abnormal circuits in the heart, or destroy the area of the heart muscle which is triggering arrhythmias
  • Cardioversion, which uses electrical signals to get an abnormal heart rhythm back to normal
  • Having a pacemaker fitted

How do I get diagnosed with AFib?

The NHS says that you should check your pulse using the following method:

  • Sit down for five minutes - be aware that you shouldn’t smoke or drink caffeine prior to checking your pulse
  • Hold out your left hand with the palm facing up and elbow slightly bent
  • Firmly place the your index and middle finger of your right hand on your left wrist, at the base of the thumb where the wrist and the thumb tendon connect
  • Using the second hand on a watch or a clock, count the number of beats for 30 seconds - once you’ve finished counting, double the number to get your heart rate in beats per minute

The NHS states that a normal heart rate should “be 60 to 100 beats per minute” - for those with AFib this number can be considerably higher as each individual beat is erratic.

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You should make an appointment with your GP if you notice a sudden change in your heartbeat or if your heart rate is consistently lower than 60 or above 100, especially if you’re also experiencing other symptoms listed.