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Fitbit study could detect atrial fibrillation without ECG, and you can sign up

Fitbit has announced the Fitbit Heart Study, a large-scale virtual study with users that will validate its use of Fitbit devices to identify conditions like atrial fibrillation (AFib). It will be open to most Fitbit owners with a recently released Fitbit fitness tracker.

According to Fitbit, AFib affects 33.5 million people around the world, and the condition can ultimately lead to a stroke — with AFib patients being five times as likely to suffer from a stroke. Although it’s serious, AFib diagnoses can be difficult because the condition is hard to detect. Episodes of AFib are often sporadic.

“Until recently, tools for detecting AFib had a number of limitations and were only accessible if you visited a doctor,” said Steven Lubitz, principal investigator of the Fitbit Heart Study, cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “My hope is that advancing research on innovative and accessible technology, like Fitbit devices, will lead to more tools that help improve health outcomes and reduce the impact of AFib on a large scale.”

The move follows Apple’s lead in the tracking of AFib. The Apple Watch Series 4, launched in 2018, included an ECG monitor, which allowed the device to track heart rhythms — and irregular rhythms like those indicative of AFib. Soon after it launched, many users found out for the first time that they had AFib.

Fitbit will open the study to users in the U.S. over the age of 22.

I was one of those people. In fact, I was able to print out and bring the ECG taken by the Apple Watch to a cardiologist, who confirmed the Apple Watch’s diagnosis.

The way that Fitbit devices detect AFib works differently than the Apple Watch. Fitbit is using photoplethysmography, or PPG technology, to measure the rate of blood flow in the user’s wrist. These measurements can give an indication of the heart rhythm, which is how the device can detect whether or not a user might have AFib. The Apple Watch, as mentioned, has an ECG monitor built into it, which tracks the electrical activity from the heart. Apple’s method is more direct.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Fitbit is including the technology to track AFib later than Apple. Either way, including the tech could save lives. The more companies that adopt it, the better. Fitbit trackers are more affordable than Apple’s, as well, so this move could detect AFib in a user base that wouldn’t typically purchase an Apple Watch.

How to sign up for Fitbit’s AFib study

Fitbit will open the study to users in the U.S. over the age of 22, as long as they have a current Fitbit device — which includes the Fitbit Charge 3, Charge 4, Inspire HR, Ionic, Versa, Versa 2, and Versa Lite.

If you’re interested in signing up for yourself, you can now do so directly through the Fitbit app, or by heading to the website. There’s no hard end date on the study, but the company says that the study is expected to run through 2020.

Study participants that show no signs of AFib won’t be contacted, according to information from Fitbit. If your Fitbit detects that you may have AFib, however, you’ll have the option to connect with a doctor for free, and you may receive an ECG patch to confirm the diagnosis.

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