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Using smartphone apps for heart health

A cell phone or smartphone can do so much more than make calls, send text messages, and play games.

Hundreds of heart-related applications are available for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, and other smartphones. Many are little more than glorified diaries or pamphlets. A growing number, though, are tapping into the sophisticated technology packed into these phones.

Here are a few examples of useful heart-related apps and devices.

Blood pressure

As more and more people measure their blood pressure at home, apps are springing up to help. Early ones allow a user to enter blood pressure readings from which the app makes graphs and offers suggestions.

A French company called Withings has developed a blood pressure cuff that completely automates the process. Plugging the cuff into an iPhone starts the application. After the cuff takes your blood pressure, it saves the measurement to your phone and sends it to an online database that you can access with any computer connected to the Internet. You can track the ups and downs of your blood pressure or send the measurements to your doctor.

Heart rate

Want to check your heart rate but don’t feel confident measuring your pulse? Several apps turn your phone into an automated pulse checker. For example, Instant Heart Rate, from a company called Azumio, uses a phone’s camera to measure how fast the heart is beating. Run the 99¢ app (available for iPhone or Android), place your index finger over the lens, wait a few seconds, and voila — your heart rate appears on the screen. Other apps help you calculate your target heart rate for exercise.

CPR guide

If you see a person suddenly collapse with a cardiac arrest, the best things you can do for him or her are call 911, send someone to find an automated electronic defibrillator, and start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). An app from the American Heart Association, called Pocket First Aid & CPR, can guide you through the steps of performing CPR and using the defibrillator. It also includes in-depth information for other health emergencies ($3.99 for iPhone, $2.99 for Android).

Although this app is easy to use, the descriptions and videos can be lengthy. It’s best to go through it before you need it, and then use it as a refresher when responding to an emergency.

In case of emergency

While it’s a good idea to have an ICE (in case of emergency) contact in your phone’s address book, an ICE app is also a good investment. The several available versions let you record your name, medical conditions, blood type, allergies, and medical contact information. If you install one of these, make sure the ICE button is on your start screen. Free versions may not show the icon if your phone is locked, so it’s worth buying the upgrade to make sure your emergency information is readily available.

On the horizon

Today’s apps offer only a hint of how smartphones will eventually be used in health care. A company called AliveCor has created a case for the iPhone that lets it record an electrocardiogram. Wireless devices like bathroom scales and blood pressure monitors programmed to communicate with a smartphone can alert an individual with heart failure and his or her medical team that trouble is brewing. Wearable sensors that constantly track the heart rate or rhythm could sound an early warning about an impending heart attack.

Apps and their gadgets are becoming so sophisticated and powerful that the FDA has announced its intention to regulate ones that are meant to be used with an FDA-regulated medical device (like a blood pressure cuff), or ones that turn a mobile device into a regulated medical device (like an electrocardiography machine). This is a good idea — FDA approval will help consumers know that an app works as intended.

Harvard Heart Letter

When it comes to your heart, you can’t afford to act on dubious or downright false information. Now there’s a source of expert advice and authoritative heart research that comes to you directly from the more than 8,000 doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School. The Harvard Heart Letter provides eight pages of monthly heart news for readers who may already suffer from heart disease (or their family members) and for people concerned about their risk who wish to take steps towards... Learn more »