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Could Smartphones Help You Live Longer?

We’ve heard a lot about what smartphones can do for people, from connecting with friends to managing your business and finding places to eat. But can smartphones help people live a longer, healthier life? Researchers at the University of Washington think so.

In a “Sleep Science” report by Future Lab Radio, sponsored by Intel Labs, professors and Ph.D. students explain how their ShutEye application for Android-powered mobile phones could make people more aware of what they call “healthy sleep hygiene,” and the practices they believe promote improved quality of sleep.

“I think there’s a great chance for us to extend our life spans,” said Julie Kientz, assistant professor and director of the Computing for Healthy Living and Learning Lab at the University of Washington. “We can start mitigating some of the problems, especially early on … getting people aware of issues that affect their health negatively. And these sorts of technologies that are integrated into our lives really have the potential to make us more aware, even if it’s subtly.”

Researchers believe that people might take sleep more seriously and think twice about missing a few winks in order to be more productive.

“Getting poor quality sleep is associated with everything from the common cold to premature death,” said Jared Bauer, a PhD. student in the Information School at the University of Washington.

“People who get poor quality sleep have higher rates of cardiac disease. Sleep is about as important as anything, but it’s one of the few biological functions where you would see people actively try to resist it. As a culture, we resist it.”

To help fight the resistance and promote better living and sleeping habits, Bauer and his team designed ShutEye, which fits into the larger trend of integrating computer technology into personal health.

The ShutEye application, which was used in a 4-week field study, tells the smartphone owner when it is and isn’t the right time to take a nap, go for a jog, have a coffee or enjoy a beer. The application knows that even well-intentioned behaviors at the wrong time of day can rob you of a good night’s sleep.

ShutEye Mobile Application by researchers at University of Washington advises how daily activities can impact sleep. (Credit: University of Washington)
ShutEye Mobile Application by researchers at University of Washington advises how daily activities can impact sleep. (Credit: University of Washington)

Another smartphone application being used at the university is Spot, which tests how awake or spaced out a person is by measuring their reaction or response time. Spot is based on the Psychomotor Vigilance Test (PVT) created by Professor David Dinges, and is considered by many to be the gold standard for measuring wakefulness for the past 30 years.

One of the world’s foremost sleep experts, Dinges is currently the chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry. He believes that field tests run on smartphones can collect behavioral data while people are in the real world versus a controlled test environment.

“One of the challenges is to come up with tests that can be used in the real world, tests that are robust against those added [real life] variants,” said Dinges. “But the bottom line is that if it doesn’t test with accuracy, then it’s pretty much useless.”

Bauer explained a real-world use for the ShutEye application, when a smartphone can make its owner think – at least one, maybe twice – before having that late morning or afternoon coffee.

“Based on our literature, we found that caffeine can affect your sleep up to 14 hours before you go to sleep,” said Bauer. “So if you have caffeine 2 hours after you’re awake, you start getting to the edge of what could affect your next sleep.”

Researchers seem to share the same end goal: to create useful mobile applications that help people be more aware of their daily habits so they can moderate or change health damaging behavior.If the applications can fit seamlessly into how people normally interact with their mobile phones, by sharing time-appropriate advice throughout the day rather than being more like a daily journal or nagging, alarming reminder, then these apps have a better chance to encourage mindfulness whenever and wherever people take their smartphone out of their pocket.

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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