When I began my career in cardiology, computers were clunky desktop machines, everyone carried a pager, and few people had cell phones. Today, it’s a different story. I admit that I love the technology we have at our fingertips, and so do our patients.
In fact, according to 23 years of research reviewed in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the Open Access Journal of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, people are more likely to adopt heart-healthy behaviors when guided and encouraged via the Internet, their cellphones or other devices.
The researchers reviewed 224 studies conducted on generally healthy adults, published between 1990 and 2013. The studies evaluated the effect of using Internet, mobile phones, personal sensors or stand-alone computer software tools to inspire behavioral changes, such as improving diet, increasing physical activity, losing weight and stopping/reducing tobacco or alcohol use.
Highlights of the research include:
• Participants in Internet interventions improved their diets, became more active, lost body weight/fat, reduced tobacco use and cut excessive alcohol use.
• Participants in mobile device interventions (using smartphone apps or receiving text or voicemail messages) increased their physical activity and lost body weight/fat.
• Programs that have components such as goal-setting and self-monitoring and use multiple modes of communication with tailored messages tended to be more effective. These programs were more effective when they included some interactions with health care providers.
The available research is limited because most studies lasted less than six months, providing little information on how effective and sustainable the behavioral changes will be over the long term. In addition, most studies were conducted in high-income countries with volunteers who were generally more highly educated and motivated than the general public.
But, the overall theme here is that technology can help us live a heart-healthy lifestyle. And, because smartphones are so prevalent in this country—according to a Pew Research poll, 64 percent of Americans own one—there’s no excuse not to use what’s right in our pockets or purses. Here are a few apps that can help get your heart in better shape.
1. STAT Framingham Heart Age (iPhone) and Heart Disease Risk Calculate (Android) use data from the Boston University Framingham Heart Study to estimate your odds of having a heart attack, stroke or heart failure within the next 10 years. (Free)
2. WEIGHT LOSS AND NUTRITION KNOW-HOW: Lose It! and My Fitness Pal (multiple platforms) can motivate you to set goals, count calories, compare foods, track sodium intake and share your weight loss success with your Facebook friends. (Free) The free app Fooducate (iPhone and Android) sports a bar-coding scanning tool to grade foods by nutrition for a healthier trip to the grocery store, and Figwee Portion Explorer (iPhone) cuts down on portion distortion to ward off weight gain. ($1.99)
3. TRACK YOUR RISK FACTORS: HeartWise Blood Pressure Tracker (iPhone) calculates and logs trends in your blood pressure and heart health. (99 cents) The electronic diary and reminder system GluCoMo (iPhone) tracks blood sugar levels and insulin intake. (99 cents) Stress Check (iPhone and Android) measures heart rate variability in real time to help spot stress. The more you check, the better the app gets to know your heart and the effects of different stressors. (Free)
4. HEART RATE PACE: Instant Heart Rate (iPhone, Android) determines heart rate when you place a fingertip over your phone’s camera lens. (Free) Snap a photo of your mug and the touchless app Cardiio (iPhone), the brainchild of MIT and Harvard scientists, reads how hard your heart is working by picking up slight changes in the color of your face. ($2.99)
5. IN CASE OF EMERGENCY: The American Heart Association’s Pocket First Aid & CPR app (iPhone and Android) offers concise and clear first aid and lifesaving CPR and emergency cardiovascular care instructions. ($1.99)
You also can track your activity using a variety of fitness trackers from Fitbit, Garmin, or many other manufacturers. Many monitor your sleep patterns, as well as the number of steps you take daily, and your other vital signs.
As a cardiologist, I encourage you to find an app or activity tracker that works for you, and your heart, use it and share the information for your doctor. The act of electronically holding yourself accountable is a healthy habit now possible thanks to the technology you hold in your hand.
Dr. O’Keefe is a cardiologist with Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, located in Lee’s Summit at 20 N.E. Saint Luke’s Blvd., Suite 110, 816-931-1883. Also read Dr. O’Keefe’s newsletter, From the Heart, online visit: http://www.saintlukeshealthsystem.org/saint-lukes-cardiovascular-consultants-newsletter.