Nov. 3, 2022 – Maybe you’re taking a leisurely stroll through your neighborhood or wandering the aisles of a grocery store. It’s quite possible that your smartphone will also go on the journey – perhaps as a podcast player or digital comforter.
But what if this phone could collect data from your daily cardio activity to predict how long you will live?
There may not be an app for that yet, but researchers at the University of Illinois laid the groundwork for this possibility in a to learn recently appeared in the magazine PLOS Digital Health.
“It is known that people [who] move more – and move more vigorously – live longer,” says Dr. Bruce Schatz, a medical informatics expert at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study. “In the end we tried to see what you can see walking movement that had some medical significance.”
Schatz and his colleagues collected data from more than 100,000 adults aged 45 to 79 in the UK Biobank, a biomedical database in the United Kingdom. Participants wore wrist sensors 24/7 for a week while going about their daily routines, and researchers reviewed data from 12 consecutive 30-second walk intervals for each study participant.
Researchers analyzed participants’ walking intensity and used it to predict their risk of death each year over a 5-year period.
Because the data was collected from 2013 to 2015, the researchers were able to verify the accuracy of the estimates using death certificates. The team’s predictions matched participants’ actual mortality closely, although the model was slightly more accurate for the earlier years than the 5-year mark.
“It doesn’t personally give you, ‘You have five minutes to live,'” says Schatz. Rather, “What is the probability that you will die in 5 years or in 2 years?”
However, if an app that can predict your date of death becomes available, Larry Hernandez of San Antonio, TX will be willing to try. The 42-year-old is a private health insurance consultant, and such technology could provide an incentive for his clients to improve their fitness, he says.
But Hernandez is also familiar with tracking his own metrics. Since starting his running program in 2015, he has lost 60 pounds and continues to log 5km daily on his Apple Watch.
If “the activities of today or yesterday actually gave me another, extra year of life,” says Hernandez, “that would be awesome.”
Towards universal health coverage
The wrist devices worn by the participants had accelerometers built into even the cheapest smartphones. These motion sensors are key to making health information accessible to the masses, says Schatz.
Smartwatches and other wearable fitness trackers are becoming increasingly popular – about 1 in 5 US adults wear them regularly, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey – but are not affordable for everyone. However, according to a 2021 estimate, 97% of Americans own a mobile phone and 85% own a smartphone Bank.
The practical applications of the formula developed by Schatz and his colleagues are enormous. For example, a hospital system could simultaneously monitor most of its patients via their smartphones and be alerted to changes in their walking patterns that could indicate a medical problem—all without disrupting patients’ lives.
“It is the screening of the population that matters. It’s the early catch when you can still do something,” says Schatz. “There’s a real opportunity here to do something for a lot of people.”
Vienna Williams, MPH, sees an opportunity for employers. As director of the International WELL Building Institute in New York City, she helps companies from Hilton to Uber make employee well-being a priority.
“Wearables and sensors are helping us to really understand changeable behavior, and that’s where we have an opportunity to step in,” says Williams, noting that the institute is already using such technologies to help clients understand employee health trends. “The most important question that these things help us to answer is: Where do we have room to change our behavior in a way that we know will help our health in the long term?”
An app that could predict the probability of death could also help close health disparities by being easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Even in emerging markets like Brazil and Indonesia, an average of 45% of people own a smartphone, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.
“The benefits of physical activity are undeniable,” says Jan Carney, MD, associate dean of public health and health policy at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “But the rate of physical activity in the population [are] uneven.”
The work of Schatz and his colleagues contributes to the goal of health equity, says Carney.
“By developing such a simple, practical technology, many people in a given community can know what their own activity level is,” she says.
Future studies should be more racially and ethnically diverse, says Schatz. Although the study participants reflected the British population, the majority were white. Schatz’s team plans to continue their research through the National Institutes of Health All of us research programwhich aims to enroll more than 1 million people.