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Can Health Apps Save Your Life?

From measuring blood sugar to staying safe at night, apps on your smartphone prove handy

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    Help Is Just a Tap Away

    Your smartphone can do a lot, but can it save your life? It just might, thanks to a growing number of apps that monitor chronic conditions, improve health habits, even protect you and your loved ones from harm.

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    Stay Safe

    Worried about walking alone? Several apps offer peace of mind by connecting you with friends and family when you’re out and about. With bSafe, you set up a network of friends who can follow you home via GPS and receive an SOS if you’re in trouble. Kitestring sends you text messages at specified times and also sends alerts to your network if you don’t respond.

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    Make Contact

    In an emergency, you may be in no shape to share essential health info with first responders. Let your phone do it for you. Apps such as ICE for Android and the iOS 8’s native app, Medical ID, store details including allergies, current medications, health conditions and emergency contacts, all of which can be accessed on your lock screen. “That’s something I want on my parents’ phone if, God forbid, anything happens,” says ER physician Iltifat Husain, an assistant professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the founder of iMedicalApps.

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    Quit Smoking

    Kicking the habit can save your life, and loads of quit-smoking apps exist. However, Husain says many don’t use evidence-based techniques to help you through the struggle. His advice: “Look for apps with reminders and social media features, things that in the past have been shown to work.” Try QuitNow! or Smoke Free. But, cautions app developer Daniel Hommes, a UCLA professor of medicine, “an app alone won’t solve the problem. You need a more comprehensive plan.”

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    Sleep Well

    Good sleep protects against heart attack and stroke, and sleep apps like SleepBot and Sleep Time can help you measure the quality of the rest you get, track it over time and encourage better sleep. Plus, fatigue is a symptom of many diseases “so it’s really relevant to optimize sleep,” adds UCLA’s Hommes.

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    Control Diabetes

    Unchecked blood glucose ups your risk of stroke and heart disease. Make it easier to track by pairing your smartphone with a device such as the OneTouch VerioSync or the Dario Glucose Monitoring System. The Dexcom G4 monitoring system, recently approved by the FDA, goes even further and allows you to automatically share your data with caregivers. Free apps such as Glucose Buddy and dLife Diabetes Companion offer disease tracking features, nutrition info, alerts to check your blood glucose, and more.

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    Monitor Your Lungs

    Apps like Propeller and AsthmaSense may help predict life-threatening asthma flares. Asthma Help and Asthma Health will alert you about outdoor air quality. Wake Forest’s Husain also likes apps that teach proper inhaler technique.Too often, he sees patients in the ER who do it wrong. “When you use it incorrectly, that’s treatment time lost.” Assist Me With Inhalers is designed specifically to improve technique.

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    Watch Your Blood Pressure

    Hypertension has no symptoms, so how do you know if yours is under control? “Apps can be super useful,” Husain adds. The most accurate apps, he says, link to home monitors. Check out these from iHealth and Withings. A good app will store your measurements so that you can see trends, and it also reminds you to measure your BP on schedule.

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    Prevent Falls

    For people over 65, more fatalities and injuries are caused by falls than by any other means — but you can protect yourself. The iStand app aims to teach you how to boost your balance and lower your chances of taking a dangerous tumble. It will walk you through tai chi and other strength building exercises, help you track how well you’re doing and connect you with physical therapists through its online forum.

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    Track Locations

    A loved one with dementia wanders off. What do you do? Find him or her with a small, dedicated GPS device (eZoom) and your phone’s browser or with an app (PocketFinder). These devices, kept in a pocket or bag, send location info to registered users, who can receive alerts if their loved ones leave a place they’re supposed to be. Don’t rely on tracking them through their phone, however. Phones are easily left behind, and batteries need constant charging, Wake Forest’s Husain warns.

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    Fight the Flu

    The flu can do more than make you feel bad. For older adults, it can be quite serious — even fatal. Protect yourself with a flu shot and a flu app. The CDC’s FluView app tracks flu outbreaks so that you know what areas have been hit the hardest. Flu Defender does that, too, and also provides tips on prevention and symptoms and on how to find the nearest available vaccine.

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    Consult Your Physician

    Too little is known about the benefits and accuracy of most health apps. “It’s the wild, wild West right now,” Husain says. Both Husain and Hommes encourage all smartphone users to work with their doctors when using an app to monitor and help manage health conditions such as diabetes and blood pressure or to quit smoking. “Don’t try to do it with just an app,” UCLA’s Hommes adds. “Do it together with your provider.”

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