A smartwatch or tracker could reveal the early signs of Parkinson’s

New research finds smartwatches could pick up Parkinson’s seven years before doctors.

Smartwatches and fitness trackers could play a key role in detecting who is likely to develop Parkinson’s seven years before a formal diagnosis would be possible.

New research has found that wearable fitness tech can be used to analyse subtle changes in movement to help spot the degenerative disease.

The news has been welcomed as a big step forward by the medical profession and charities.

But what does this mean for you if you are worried that you may be at risk of developing Parkinson’s, and should you buy a fitness tracker?

A man checking his smartwatchCredit: Shutterstock / AF Photography

What is the new research saying?

Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that causes motor problems and affects about 150,000 people in Britain. Famous people affected by the disease include Saga’s columnist Jeremy Paxman, US actor Michael J Fox and comedian Billy Connolly.

However due to the way the disease develops, by the time Parkinson’s is spotted sufferers typically already have significant neurological damage.

Researchers from Cardiff University collected data from more than 100,000 people who spent a week wearing a smart watch. Of these, more than 400 went on to develop Parkinson’s years later. The scientists then used artificial intelligence to analyse differences between them and healthy people in the group and found that those who went on to develop Parkinson’s moved less, moved more slowly and their sleep was more disrupted (with them getting out of bed more during the night). The information gathered by the smartwatches was even able to predict how many years it would take for Parkinson’s to be evident.

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A woman having a smartwatch put on his wrist by a medicCredit: Shutterstock / Lomb

Dr Cynthia Sandor, from Cardiff University’s Dementia Research Institute told Saga Exceptional: “This research not only highlights a new and innovative way of using fitness trackers in research for future disease risk, but also shows how technology – like smartwatches – could play a part in healthcare and research in the future, as they allow us to collect health data in a consistent and passive way.”

Hope for new treatments for sufferers

There are no drugs that can be used to slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s, but researchers hope this development could help with the development of treatments that could be given at earlier stages of the illness – in particular by making it easier to test these treatments.

Parkinson’s UK associate director of research, Claire Bale, adds: “By the time someone develops obvious symptoms of Parkinson’s – things like problems with walking, handwriting becoming smaller, or the characteristic tremor – we believe that significant damage has occurred deep inside the brain, with up to 70% of cells responsible for making and releasing dopamine already struggling to function properly.

“This could be a major step towards a test that could be used to screen and identify people in the very early stages of developing the condition, years before a formal diagnosis. It could open the door to early intervention with treatments and therapies that can slow, stop or even reverse the damage to brain cells – and potentially prevent Parkinson’s.”

Moving slowly is an early sign of Parkinson’s

Prof José López Barneo, Professor of Physiology and researcher at the University of Seville, says: “A very strong correlation has been found between people who move little and slowly with future Parkinson’s disease. These data are specific to Parkinson’s and do not predict other neurological diseases (e.g. Alzheimer’s or dystonia) or joint diseases (osteoarthritis).”

He added that while it was already known that slowness of movement is a feature of some people who go on to develop Parkinson’s disease, these studies had only been done in people at risk of developing Parkinson’s, and were carried out in a hospital, needing healthcare staff to do the movement analysis. He said using smartwatches to do the same thing “is novel and very interesting, as it is relatively easy to do in the general population”.

The early signs of Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s UK says the earlier symptoms are spotted, the earlier treatments can begin.

  • Problems with your sleep
  • Losing your sense of smell
  • Smaller handwriting
  • Problems with bladder or bowels
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Tremors or uncontrollable movements
  • Slowness of movement
  • Inflexibility, stiffness or cramp
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Smartwatches for people with Parkinson’s

Researchers say that the use of smartwatches and trackers to identify Parkinson’s is still in the developmental stage, so members of the public won’t be able to use them to self-diagnose. However, smartwatch apps are already being developed for people with Parkinson’s, to help them monitor their symptoms.

Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s former technology correspondent, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2019. He is currently involved in the Movers and Shakers podcast about living with the disease.

He told Saga Exceptional that there is a huge amount of research going into the use of smartwatches, and not only in Parkinson’s.

He says: “I spent last week trying out a very sophisticated system from a Greek company where I wore five different sensors, one on each arm, leg and around my middle and they produced a fantastic amount of data on me.

“The NHS is also looking at using smartwatches for routine checks on people’s progress, rather than trying to get them to a hospital – they could be sent a smartwatch so they could be monitored remotely instead, and in terms of productivity this could be really valuable.”

How we can use smartwatches to monitor our health

Researchers say that the use of smartwatches and trackers to identify Parkinson’s is still in the developmental stage, so members of the public won’t be able to use them to self-diagnose. However, smartwatch apps are already being developed for people with Parkinson’s, to help them monitor their symptoms.

Millions of us use fitness trackers to count our daily steps or record our runs, but they can also be used to monitor our general health. Read our article about whether a fitness tracker or smartwatch is right for you.

Saga Exceptional’s Fitness Technology writer Steven Shaw explains: “Fitness trackers and smartwatches have come a long way since the basic pedometers of the past. While we aren’t quite at the stage where current devices can detect Parkinson’s, they still offer a lot of potentially valuable insights into your health and activity levels.

Picture of Fitbit devices - Inspire 3, Versa 4 and Sense 2Credit: Google

“Any respectable device will count your steps, track your sleep, and estimate your daily calorie burn. Many will also offer heart rate tracking, blood oxygen level monitoring, and can also track a wide variety of exercise types, including running, walking, swimming and yoga, to give just a few examples.

“The Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 can also monitor your blood pressure, while many devices, including the Fitbit Charge 5, can perform an ECG (electrocardiogram) to potentially detect atrial fibrillation, a common type of heart arrhythmia.

“While these devices won’t get you fit by themselves (you’ll still have to put in the work!) they can arm you with an arsenal of valuable insights to let you know how fit you are. They can also help you monitor trends over time, to give you an idea of whether any changes you make to your diet and exercise are having an impact on your overall health.

“Finally, fitness trackers and smartwatches have been shown to have a motivational effect on people. Simply wearing one can encourage us to be more mindful about our activity levels.

If you’re interested in tracking your fitness, it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The most expensive devices, such as the Apple Watch Ultra, can cost more than £800. But they offer many of the same health monitoring features and shouldn’t cost you more than about £130. There are some very good fitness trackers such as the Honor Band 7 which are less than £50, and could be a great starting point if you’ve never used one of these devices before.

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Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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