As a former polysomnographer (sleep technologist), I can say the rise of technology to evaluate and diagnose sleep disorders has certainly reached its own. You spend nearly 1/3 of your life sleeping, yet it is an area which is becoming increasingly neglected in the modern age. Busy schedules, non-stop entertainment, changing vocational habits, longer work days, and weight gain have all negatively impacted sleep for millions around the world.
So how can your smartphone help? New advances in motion detection can help record whether or not you have had a peaceful or restless night of sleep. Sure, we all feel it when we don’t sleep well, but to what extent? How do we quantify that feeling so that we can know if it is serious or not?
While the Nike+iPod is one of the first connected fitness trackers, it was 2006’s Fitbit Tracker that made fitness tracking truly personal. A thumb-sized clip-on device, the original Fitbit used a three-axis accelerometer to track the wearer’s motion throughout the day and night. With that motion data the Fitbit could calculate the distance walked, elevation change, calorie burn rate, sleep time, and even how often the wearer woke while sleeping. In 2012, Fitbit released the smaller Zip, a compact quarter-sized device with basic steps, distance, and calories tracking; an updated full-size tracker called the One also debuted. 2013 saw the Zip and One joined by Flex, a wristband variant of the One.
As it turns out, a lot of older adults suffer from obstructive apnea — the temporary blocking of the airway, often seen as severe snoring — and it can cause all sorts of health problems, including severely disturbed sleep. If a person is constantly tossing and turning (and it is not stressed induced), obstructive sleep apnea could be the cause. Modern recording technologies and the power of a smartphone can be the first step in identifying this and other disorders of sleep.
Another useful application of smartphones (or related technologies like Fitbit) is in the usage of alarms. Traditionally, an alarm is meant to wake you up at a specific time. It’s only requirement? Be loud. However, with modern sleep medicine and the tracking of sleep cycles, we now know that there are better times during your sleep to wake up than others.
Have you ever taken a nap, had the alarm go off, and only felt worse than when you laid down? That’s because you were awakened in a cycle of deep sleep.
Have you ever taken a nap and had the alarm go off, only to feel worse than when you laid down? Experienced “brain fog” and general lethargy? That’s because you were awakened in a cycle of deep sleep or even REM (when we traditionally dream). “Smart alarms” can sense when you start moving around to change positions and go off then – if you are shifting positions, you’re not in a dream state and your brain is nearly conscious. That’s why we feel more refreshed waking naturally instead of by an intrusive alarm.
We’re just starting to see how mobile devices can play a role in modern health diagnostics, but it will be one of the fastest growing and more interesting areas to watch in the coming years.