Researchers Have Found A Way To Track Your Mortality Rate By How You Walk


Using technology to track our health has become a common part of our lives in recent years. From wearable devices to apps on our phones, many of us are monitoring and tracking everything in our lives with a smart device.

But what if this technology could predict when you’re at risk of dying? It turns out, scientists believe they have found a way.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study titled Population Analysis of Mortality Risk: Predictive Models From Passive Monitors Using Motion Sensors that was published in the journal PLOS Digital Health.

That’s an extremely scientific and fancy way of saying that they were trying to find out if they could predict mortality rates using the measures of physical activity from wrist-worn accelerometers.

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While this specific study used a wearable device, the researchers wanted to simulate as closely as possible the data that could be provided passively by just carrying a smartphone.

As the study notes, smartphones are very prevalent in high-income countries and on the rise in low-income countries. If they could find a way to use smartphone-collected data for population-level analysis, this could open doors for improved public health across the globe.

A Look At The Study

Using data from 100,000 participants that came from one week of wearing a wrist sensor, researchers designed a model that pared an individual’s acceleration and distance down into six-minute chunks. This mimics the popular six-minute walk test that doctors use as a simple measure of aerobic exercise capacity to monitor lung and heart health.  

Based on this analysis, the researchers developed a model aimed at predicting mortality risk, and the results were surprisingly accurate. In predicting death after one year, they were correct 76% of the time. Predictions of death after five years stood at 73%. These results were similar to a study published last year in the Journals of Gerontology, which used hours of data instead of minutes.

According to study author Bruce Schatz, a computer science researcher at the University of Illinois, the latest research is potentially more beneficial to public health since it demonstrated the capabilities of passive monitoring technology. Not only does this open up greater analysis potential as detailed earlier, but it requires less effort on the part of the user.

Imagine, a world where your doctor can receive vital data on your health and potentially identify health risks such as a heart condition, all without the need to schedule an in-office visit.

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Of course, there are possible ethical implications when using technology that can passively monitor the user. In terms of sending information to health care providers, there are issues of continuous informed consent and lack of technological literacy, among other concerns.

There are also privacy concerns when it comes to the potential large-scale health analysis that researchers were very excited about. “If you record all of the data, it’s true that people have characteristic walks and you can tell who the individual is,” Schatz told The Daily Beast. “But it’s totally possible to take part of the signal, which is good enough to do the vitals but completely disguises who the person is.”

Overall, Schatz remarked that these ethical issues are still speculative but will be considered as the research moves forward. His team has already studied sensors that are used in cell phones and smartphones. In the future, they will be working on phones that are carried in pockets instead of technology worn on the wrist.

“If you want to raise the general health of the entire population, this kind of project is really important,” Schatz concluded.

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