'It saved my life': Woman credits smart watch with alerting her to extremely high heart rate — here's what you should know

Joan Fair, a 75-year-old Hamilton, Ont. woman, wasn't aware she had any heart rate issues until she was alerted by her watch.

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Dr. Jason Andrade, a cardiac electrophysiologist, said the most common arrhythmia heart-rate monitoring devices might find is atrial fibrillation (AFib). AFib is a type of irregular heart rhythm where the heart’s upper chambers beat out of sync with the lower chambers and it affects about two per cent of the population. (Image by Vanessa Kissoon)
Experts say the most common arrhythmia heart-rate monitoring devices might find is atrial fibrillation (AFib). (Image provided by Apple)

Joan Fair originally purchased a Garmin runner's watch because she wanted to get back into shape after contracting COVID-19. During one sleepless night, the 75-year-old's watch was constantly beeping and sending her alerts that her heart rate was high.

“I had no indications of any heart rate problems before that,” Fair told Yahoo Canada.

After some research, she eventually invested in an Apple watch which helped her monitor her heart health more closely. One night, Fair woke up with a heart rate of 220, alarmingly high compared to a normal rate that usually ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Fair said that had she not been able to see her heart rate and call the ambulance, she would have died.

“There’s no question. It saved my life,” said Fair, who resides in Hamilton, Ont.

In Fair's opinion, the heart rate monitoring feature is “110 per cent reliable and helpful.” After the night she called an ambulance, she started checking her watch compulsively. She would move or lie down, clocking any irregularities, which weren’t uncommon by then.

She said she also became more proactive in her health and seeking medical attention. Fair would go to the ER when things seemed off and she eventually had a successful heart surgery at the end of 2023. And though she now describes her heart as “steady as a rock,” that doesn’t stop her from still wearing her watch just in case.

“What’s interesting is I do not use this [watch] for exercising or…any of the other 2,000 reasons people use an Apple watch. I use it only for one thing. I stopped all emails, phone calls and anything that comes through. It’s just my heart — that’s the only thing I watch for.”

Joan Fair was a lawyer and retired in 2020. This photo was taken before Fair contracted COVID-19, while her and her partner, David, were packing to go to Grenada. (Image provided by Joan Fair)
Joan Fair said she would check her Apple Watch compulsively to monitor her heart rate after a traumatic experience where her heart rate spiked and she had to call an ambulance. (Image provided by Joan Fair)

Fair is one of many Canadians who have turned to tech to help them better understand and monitor their health. Earlier this month, a 44-year-old firefighter in Nova Scotia said his Apple watch alerted him of an irregular heart rate, that turned out to be a heart attack. For both him and Fair, the ability to identify this irregularity was paramount to their survival.

But are there limitations to this technology? Could it be providing a false sense of security? Yahoo Canada spoke to a cardiologist about heart rate monitoring tech, like the Apple Watch, and other ways someone might be able to identify red flags in their heart health.

As a cardiac electrophysiologist, Dr. Jason Adrade focus on heart rhythm disorders and look after patients with abnormal heartbeats. In an interview with Yahoo Canada, Andrade said there are some instances where tech can play a beneficial part in heart health and has seen patients come in because of notifications from their devices.

“Wearable devices have the benefit of looking at what’s happening with people’s heart rhythms for long windows of time,” said Andrade who works at Vancouver General Hospital. He added that sometimes it can be hard to capture symptoms like heart palpitations or abnormal heartbeats through typical tests because the test can only look at a finite window of time, like 24 hours. “For something that happens intermittently or rarely, [devices] give you an opportunity to diagnose something that you can’t find with conventional testing.”

On Apple's Heart Rate app, you can turn on heart rate notifications that can alert you if your heart rate remains above or below a chosen threshold after you've been inactive for 10 minutes. You can also set up irregular heartbeat notifications or show atrial fibrillation history. (Image by Vanessa Kissoon)
On Apple's Heart Rate app, you can turn on heart rate notifications that can alert you if your heart rate remains above or below a chosen threshold after you've been inactive for 10 minutes. (Image provided by Apple)

Andrade said the most common arrhythmia these heart-rate monitoring devices might find is atrial fibrillation (AFib), a type of irregular heart rhythm where the heart’s upper chambers beat out of sync with the lower chambers. Because someone with AFib might not be experiencing any symptoms, the first sign may be something severe, like a stroke.

“Having the monitors that can see atrial fibrillation before it becomes a stroke means that we’re alerted to it and there’s an opportunity to give treatments that prevent devastating complications,” Andrade said. “It can detect things that are elusive and some of the things that are elusive can be very significant.”

Still, Andrade adds that people should be mindful of the technical limitations of heart-rate monitoring devices. For example, a notification or warning of an irregular heartbeat can’t necessarily point to why it’s happening. Andrade said some of the warnings might be benign or more testing will be needed.

“You have to wear to device for it to work,” he said, adding that if someone doesn’t wear the watch while they sleep, they might not get the benefit of the monitoring.

According to Andrade, some watches have the ability to record a heart rhythm like an ECG (electrocardiogram). He added that those devices can be much more useful because people who are feeling symptoms can record a 10 second ECG which the watch can interpret or you can bring it to your doctor to be interpreted.

Health visitor using digital tablet and talking to a senior man during home visit
People have credited their smart watches with detecting cardiac abnormalities. (Image via Getty).

Smartwatches and fitness bands generally measure your heart rate by scanning the blood flow near your wrist by illuminating it with LEDs. Some devices, like the Apple watch, use green LED lights because blood absorbs green light. “When your heart beats, the blood flow in your wrist–and the green light absorption–is greater,” states the Apple site.

Typically you don’t have to wear the watch over a consecutive period of time for it to know if you’re experiencing an irregular heart rhythm.

Andrade said people who tend to wear heart-rate monitoring watches tend to be the younger population since it can double as a fitness tracker. "In principle, there may be a bit of a mismatch between those who might benefit the most from these devices and who actually wears them," he said

Andrade said an irregularity occurs when you have an extra heartbeat from the top or bottom of the heart. “It can be a benign thing, everybody has it to some degree,” he added. Other times, the electricity of the heart can slow down, meaning it might not conduct every heartbeat from the top or bottom chambers. “And there are circumstances where that’s benign…and other times when it’s significant and we would have to intervene on it.”

Andrade recommends paying attention to how your heart rhythms “make you feel.” For example, if you feel like your heart is racing or pounding, a shortness of breath, discomfort in the chest, lightheadedness or faint spells, those are all red flags in heart health and signs you should seek professional medical help.

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