Today Apple announced that it’s adding three new health features to its Apple WatchOS6, designed to allow users learn about activity trends, track periods and keep track of hearing safety.
The tech world has been abuzz with rumors that Apple would start focusing on hearing related technologies. At Apple’s worldwide developer conference (WWDC) event, at least one of those rumors came to fruition, with its new feature that will alert users if environmental noise or phone audio could impact long-term hearing health.
“Since hearing loss is often so gradual, it is important to know when the sounds around you are loud enough to impact your hearing, like when you are in the middle of a construction zone, at a sporting event or playing your music really loud,” Apple VP of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai said at the event. “... The new noise app uses a microphone to detect decibel levels and can notify you if it has reached a level that can impact your hearing over time. Because the watch is always on your wrist, it is in a great position to monitor environmental noise. If you tap the noise app you will get more detail and you can use the complication to check.”
Desai assured that the feature will protect a user’s privacy by only periodically sampling audio and not saving it.
Although not discussed in the keynote address, Apple also updated its iPhone and hearing aids information page on Thursday detailing how hearing aids can work with an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. The devices can pair with a user’s hearing aids and be controlled via the device. The Apple device will let a user view battery life, adjust volume for hearing aids and turn on music.
Another new announcement out of today’s keynote was the trends feature, which allow users to track nine fitness metrics and then compare thier past activity behavior to their current levels. If a user is falling behind, the platform will offer motivation.
“For nine key metrics, it will compare your progress over the last 90 days with the last 365. If the trends show you are maintaining or improving you will see an arrow pointing up,” Desai said. “But if you are trending downward we will give you some simple coaching to get you back on track. You will see familiar trends like move, exercise and stand but you will also see trends for some new metrics like your workout walking pace, flights of stairs climbed or even your cardio fitness level. Activity trends will provide you with a more complete picture of what you can do to stay active and more importantly give you the motivation you need for long term success.”
Lastly, the company announced a new period tracking feature, where individuals can enter information about their menstrual cycle and get notifications about their cycle in the future.
“You can log key aspects of your period and fertility, including symptoms, and you can be notified when it is about to begin" Desai said. “You can also choose to receive the fertile window predictions so you are better informed.”
On its website, Apple also teased a forthcoming update to the Health app related to the new WatchOS features.
WHY IT MATTERS
With an aging population in the US, Europe and beyond, hearing loss has been a concern in the medical community. Hearing loss is more prevalent in older populations than younger, with some reports estimating that around half of adults over 60 have some form of hearing loss.
Dr. Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer at AARP, named hearing loss as one of the top health issues that technology could address.
“Technology for hearing devices has improved a lot but it still remains inaccessible to the vast majority of [older] adults for two reasons,” Yeah said to MobiHealthnews. “One is the cost. The current model for hearing aides is thousands of dollars per hearing aid per year. It is not covered by Medicare because Medicare calls hearing loss a normal part of aging, so why should we fix it?”
But it isn’t just the senior population that is at risk of hearing loss. The World Health Organizationestimates that around 50% of young people between the ages of 12 and 35 are exposed to unsafe noise levels from a “personal audio device” like a smartphone.
In May Bloomberg published a list of features that Apple was planning to roll out. Key among them was the smartwatch function around external noise data presented today. However, some features in the Bloomberg leak, such as an Apple Watch app for medication adherence, were not announced today.
Apple is far from the only tech giant interested in the hearing space. Google has demonstrated an active interested in tackling accessibility issues for people living with hearing loss. In February the company launched a platform focused on quickly translating everyday speech into text and a second focused on amplifying sounds for the user.
Lastly, when it comes to the new period tracker feature, the Apple Watch is more than a year behind its main competitor Fitbit, which added a similar feature in March of 2018.