Companies and researchers are developing the next generation of methods for creating and quantifying personal data with the aim of using the information to increase health and happiness. Some technologies are still in their infancy, including machines that sit at home and passively look for early signs of illness. Others can only be used to a limited extent. Still others, such as smart thermometers and blood glucose meters, are widespread, but proponents see untapped potential in the data collected.
These advances bring security concerns as sensitive information moves to the cloud, and privacy concerns, especially in cases where manufacturers have data on the health of their customers that the customers themselves cannot access. It is too early to know exactly which metrics represent improved health, or whether zealous pursuit is itself having a negative impact.
Research has shown that spending time outdoors can be beneficial for wellbeing – but are certain natural environments having an oversized effect? NatureQuant, based in Bend, Oregon, aims to quantify time in nature. This week the company released NatureDose, an app that tracks people’s time indoors and outdoors during their daily routine. The app can map the nature a person passes by, be it a lake or a tree-lined city street, through phone sensors, including GPS and accelerometers. This data is paired with NatureQuant’s mapping systems to determine a person’s proximity to natural elements. The app is being tested in university clinical trials to find out how time in nature affects anxiety and depression. Eventually, the company hopes healthcare professionals could use the data to prescribe time in the great outdoors and even tailor recommendations based on lifestyle, season and location. For example, the app could advise vitamin D deficient users when to catch UV rays.
be careful what you say
Dentists have long advised brushing your teeth for two minutes twice a day. In the future, the quantification of dental data, such as For example, tracking acid levels in the mouth can help predict tooth decay before it occurs and make links between oral health and other health issues. For example, night watchmen or other devices that measure certain biomarkers in saliva could detect diseases such as gum infections that are linked to diabetes, says Dr. Corneliu Sima, Assistant Professor of Oral Medicine, Infections, and Immunity at Harvard School of Dentistry. Camera-based toothbrushes could serve as oral scanners, sending real-time information to dentists, who could use machine learning to search the data to see if patients need to come for a visit, he says.
The well-known admonition to drink eight glasses of water a day has led many Americans to lug around bottles of water to meet their hydration needs. Finally, hydration has been shown to promote brain function, heart health, digestion, and other body functions. Is Eight Glasses Really the Right Number for Everyone? In the future, networked devices could help to assess how much water is optimal for each individual. The PÜL SmartCap, a mobile connected water bottle cap, recently came onto the market and promises to help consumers set goals and track their fluid balance with an accompanying app.
Some people wear blood glucose meters that use a small device on their arm to continuously measure blood sugar, even if they do not have diabetes. Elevated or rising blood sugar has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. So, proponents of blood glucose meters say that monitoring blood sugar levels could help wearers personalize their diets and lead healthier lives. The Levels software, for example, allows users to track their glucose levels in an app while eating different foods, exercising and sleeping. Ultimately, the company envisions people having multiple biosensor currents that help them optimize cell function and predict disease, says Dr. Casey Means, Levels’ chief medical officer.
The wearable that you don’t have to wear
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a wall-mounted, laptop-sized box that sits indoors and analyzes electromagnetic waves around residents to measure health metrics non-invasively. Machine learning enables the device to track breathing, heart rate, movement, gait, time in bed, and the length and quality of sleep – even through walls. Health organizations, hospitals, and medical schools use the device. It is used in clinical trials in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and immune diseases and was used for the isolated monitoring of Covid-19 patients during the first wave of the pandemic. Dr. Dina Katabi, a professor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who led the project, says the boxes could be used in the homes of seniors and others to detect early signs of serious illness and as an alternative to wearables.
Thermometers are ubiquitous in households across the country. They are often the first medical aid people seek when they feel sick. The summary of these temperature readings and associated symptoms could one day quantify and diagnose disease at the population level. In the coming years, smart thermometers could potentially help determine whether patients have certain strains of flu or Covid-19 based on symptoms, temperature and other data collected from the area. Inder Singh, the founder of Kinsa, a San Francisco-based smart thermometer company, says this type of diagnosis could allow patients to bypass doctor visits and get medication quickly. Kinsa is working to turn its smart thermometers, launched in 2013, into a system that detects outbreaks and tells people how and when to seek treatment. The network has about 2.5 million thermometers in the US to date.
Old dog, new tricks
Pet owners, including the many who adopted animals during the pandemic, are also trying to quantify the health of their furry friends. Whistle Fit, for example, offers a glimpse into a possible future of networked pet care. The 1.5-inch device attaches to a dog or cat’s collar and monitors their health, fitness and behavior. Sensors collect data about a pet’s daily routine. Algorithms analyze the data to identify behaviors related to wellbeing, including playing, running, sleeping, exercising, and drinking. After establishing a baseline, Whistle can determine if a pet’s behavior is changing. The owner can set exercise goals based on race, age, and weight. The company provides summaries for sharing with veterinarians and alerts about behavioral issues such as excessive licking or scratching.
The right amount of ZZZs
There is already a wide variety of products on the market that help people fall asleep. More futuristic offerings include robots that lull patients to sleep with breathing exercises and “digital sleeping pills” that are blasted through headbands that play music or soothing noises when they feel the user wake up, says Dr. Seema Khosla, the medical director at the North Dakota Center for Sleep. Going forward, it would be helpful to have a tailored estimate of how much sleep each individual needs, as opposed to the blanket recommendation of eight hours, she says. The devices are likely to be less clunky in the years to come, she says, sitting by the bed and needing less physical contact with the sleeper.
Write to Laura Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org
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