While it is important to note that no device can replace the advice of a qualified medical professional and a comprehensive safety plan, advances in wearable technology allow users to stay on top of certain medical conditions and receive emergency help more quickly. Medical alert companies are starting to adopt smartwatch technology as well, allowing for more effective safety monitoring for seniors.
1. Sending for help
One of the greatest concerns among the aging population —and those who care for them—is the possibility of a fall when no one is around to help. While many safety alert systems require users to press a button in case of a fall, several new smartwatches and alert systems feature a drop sensor that sounds an alarm to the user if a fall is detected. If the user doesn’t turn off the alarm manually, the device will alert emergency services personnel, as well as the wearer’s emergency contacts.
If fall detection and other safety features are a priority in your search for a smartwatch, check out our list of the best medical alert systems to compare companies that offer these and other features.
2. Combining health data collection with medical alert technology
While not every senior who lives alone is ready to adopt smartwatch technology and connect it to their phone, some medical alert companies have combined the most useful features of smartwatches with lifesaving medical alert systems.
Medical Guardian, a leader in the medical-alert industry, has developed a new medical alert device supported by smartwatch technology, with features like a one-touch alert button, voice-to-text communications, step counting, and more. For those who want to live independently and are not in the market for a traditional smartwatch, these devices offer key health monitoring benefits along with medical alert features.
3. Monitor heart rate
A normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. If your heart rate repeatedly falls outside this range while at rest, it can be a sign of a medical condition. With advanced pulse monitoring features, smartwatches can pick up on abnormal heart rate patterns and alert users if their pulse falls outside of the healthy range.
A New York Times article published in 2021 detailed how one smartwatch wearer used her wearable to check her heart rate, found it to be dangerously low, and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors implanted a pacemaker. Similar stories abound, especially among the senior population, who are at higher risk for heart problems, but may also be slower to respond to warning signs.
4. Getting help without using a phone
When an accident or emergency occurs, it is sometimes impossible to get to the phone, let alone unlock it and make a call for help. Smartwatches offer the ability to call for help with the press of a single button, eliminating the need to fumble or search for a phone.
Some smartwatch models even offer separate cell service for the smartwatch, so your phone doesn’t need to be within Bluetooth range to make a phone call from the watch. Additionally, some smartwatches combine the efficacy of medical bracelets with cutting-edge technology, offering quick access to medical information for first responders, allowing them to make critical, life-saving decisions as quickly as possible.
5. Tracking the electrical activity of your heart
In addition to pulse monitoring, several wearable devices have built-in technology to collect electrocardiogram (also called an ECG or EKG) data. An ECG records the electrical signals of the heart to collect data on the rhythm of the heartbeat and the strength of electrical impulses. Data from an ECG is crucial in diagnosing many cardiac conditions.
In “Diagnostic Accuracy of Smartwatches for the Detection of Cardiac Arrhythmia,” a 2021 study cited by the National Institute of Health, researchers found that the accuracy of smartwatches in detecting abnormal heart rhythms was close to 100%. While full ECGs are performed in doctors’ offices and hospitals using several electrodes and wires, certain smartwatches—such as later model Apple Watches—can record single-lead versions of ECGs, which can provide valuable information to physicians as they make crucial treatment decisions. Access to these ECGs can also help people with known heart conditions to monitor their health from anywhere.
6. Remind you to stay active
Physical activity is a key factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, avoiding depression, and keeping your heart strong. Smartwatches can play an important role in reminding you to stand up, keep moving, and reach your exercise goals. Moreover, a 2019 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that the activity trackers found in most wearables have demonstrable beneficial effects on the wearers’ physical activity.
While early smartwatches provided a basic pedometer to count steps, new technology can provide even more useful information such as walking steadiness, which assesses your balance, strength, and gait. Now you can get notifications if your walking steadiness is poor enough to put you at an increased risk of falling.
Using GPS data along with heart rate and other metrics, smart watches can keep track of calorie expenditure to keep you informed on your fitness goals. In addition, some medical alert companies are developing ways to seamlessly gather and share information on activity trends to help patients work more effectively to improve their overall health.
7. Improving your sleep
The quality and quantity of your sleep can make a huge difference in your health and your quality of life. Wearing a smartwatch to sleep can help you keep track of how much sleep you’re getting, how interrupted it is, and how much time you spend getting good quality sleep. While these features won’t replace a true sleep study conducted by medical professionals, data from advanced smartwatches can provide key information on blood oxygen levels, sleeping heart rates, and sleeping respiratory rates.
In an article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine, Alan Schwartz, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center pointed out that most smart watch sleep trackers don’t actually measure sleep, per se. Rather, these trackers will measure your periods of rest or inactivity. Schwartz goes on: ‘“Most sleep tracking devices make some guesstimate as to how much you’re actually sleeping.”’ However, changes in factors, such as the amount and quality of rest, can alert patients and physicians about sleep apnea or other sleep-related health problems. This information can allow you to work with your physician to make important changes that can improve your sleep and your health.
8. Monitoring blood oxygen levels
A blood oxygen level represents the percentage of oxygen your red blood cells carry from your lungs to the rest of your body, indicating how well your body absorbs oxygen and how efficiently your lungs are working. A reading between 95-100% is considered normal for a healthy adult, and lower readings can be an indicator of heart, lung, or circulatory issues.
Normally measured with a monitor that fits over your finger, blood oxygen levels can now be measured at the wrist by several smartwatch brands, including Fitbit, Garmin, Mobvoi, Samsung, and Apple.
9. Handling stress
Humans have evolved to function well with short bursts of stress, helping us avoid danger, boost energy, and perform better in tricky situations. Repeated bouts of stress, however, lead to a more chronic stressed state that can be detrimental to the cardiovascular system, digestion, and mental health.
Several smartwatch brands offer useful ways to track and manage stress. These include basic features—like reminders to breathe deeply—and more advanced options that use a variety of measurements to calculate a stress management score. When users are alerted to poor stress scores, they can work to make positive changes to reduce and manage stress and avoid heart attacks and other stress-linked consequences.
10. Connecting your watch to health metrics you need
As wearable technology improves, there are more and more options to tailor your smartwatch features to your individual health needs. For diabetics and pre-diabetics, some smartwatches can connect to blood sugar monitoring systems, so lifesaving information, like glucose alerts, is readily available, even if your phone is not.
For those who require frequent blood pressure measurements, there are specialized smartwatches that can take blood pressure readings directly at the wrist, and others that can connect to more traditional blood pressure systems. Some smartwatches can track skin temperatures throughout the day, alerting users to possible infection, stress, and other potential health risks.
With the ability to monitor our health and safety and call for help if needed, smartwatches are becoming more important tools to not only keep us safe but to improve our overall health. If you are in the market for a smartwatch or wearable safety alert system, be sure to look for the health and safety features that are most important to you. While these devices cannot replace professional medical advice or a detailed safety plan, they can be an invaluable - and sometimes life-saving - tool.