'Quantified sleep' data next wave of personal health measurement

In the growing quantified-self movement, measuring sleep is the next frontier for improving patient health.

These days, there are many personal fitness gadgets that help people track their physical activity and motivate them to exercise regularly. An interesting psychological phenomenon is associated with strapping an activity-tracking gadget on one's wrist and becoming more self-conscious about one's level of movement and exercise. I am an avid believer that modern activity trackers can lead to positive sustainable behavior modifications in people.

Some of these gadgets also measure our sleep. Why should we care about sleep tracking? Activity trackers like the FitBit, Jawbone Up and Misfit Shine can also be worn during sleep. But can the quantification of our sleep actually affect our health?

If you are the type of person who wears an activity tracker to stay motivated about your physical exercise, consider how important your sleep is to your health.

There are several ways that our sleep-tracking data may directly help us improve our own sleep and that of our patients: First, people might have an undiagnosed sleep disorder, and the quantified sleep data that their gadget generates could prompt them to go through a formal sleep evaluation -- also known as a sleep study. A formal sleep study can diagnose a range of sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), periodic limb movement disorder, rapid eye movement, sleep behavior disorder and others.

Obstructive sleep apnea affects as much as 20% of the adult population. However, it is diagnosed in only 10% of those who have sleep apnea. This means that more than 90% of patients who have OSA are unaware of their condition. Furthermore, most people don't realize how sleep apnea can directly impact their health. Sleep apnea is directly associated with high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, congestive heart failure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, coronary heart disease, and stroke. That is a long list of serious health conditions that are directly impacted by how we sleep.

Second, even if you don't have a formal sleep disorder, using a sleep tracking gadget may help you improve the quality of your sleep. Perhaps you have trouble falling asleep and you struggle with insomnia at night. Maybe you have erratic sleep patterns and you do not feel rested when you wake up in the morning. There is a certain level of discipline that is required to optimize our sleep hygiene. This is analogous to the fact that we have to remain disciplined if we want to exercise regularly to stay fit and maintain a healthy weight. If we don't pay attention to how we sleep, then it could be hazardous to our health.

Read more on analyzing personal health data

Gadgets and big data

How the quantified self aids meaningful use

Interoperable devices deliver data to providers

So, if you are the type of person who wears an activity tracker to stay motivated about your physical exercise, consider how important your sleep is to your health. I was an early user of the Zeo Sleep Manager, a headband that tracks and records our sleep patterns. Although Zeo is no longer in business, there are many activity trackers that can be worn on your wrist while you sleep. Also, we will probably be seeing other headband-style sleep trackers emerging on the market. The MotionX-24/7 mobile app also tracks your sleep by measuring and correlating resting heart rate with sleep-cycle monitoring in a noninvasive manner. Beddit, using ultra-thin film sensors in your bed under the sheet, is another approach at quantifying sleep. You don't wear any sensors. Beddit tracks your sleeping patterns, heart rate, breathing, snoring, movements and environment.

So, how do you sleep? Perhaps it is time to start measuring your own sleep so that you can see how it is directly impacting your health.

About the author:
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion for leveraging health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of NonClinicalJobs.com and is an active social media specialist. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was first published in October 2013
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