Sleep trackers are the newest tool that people and doctors are using to get an idea of what’s going on while we sleep, or why we don’t sleep. The problem is that the people who are using them are primarily those who don’t need them as much — those who are healthy or have the money to fix any health problems.
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke. These are some of the surprise findings, say the study authors, of the first national survey of sleep-specific mobile health app use among men and women in the United States. The survey was led by researchers at NYU School of Medicine.
Researchers say widespread use of mobile devices to monitor daily habits may offer health care providers a way to more quickly diagnose and more effectively treat sleep problems, which are tied to increased rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Supporting this approach is a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, which showed that the amount of mobile time spent by Americans tracking their health habits is second only to that spent surfing the internet.
But the NYU School of Medicine researchers caution that the value of sleep apps to either users or sleep specialists is unclear so far.
“People are getting all this information on their sleep patterns and not really knowing how to interpret it, or even if it’s legitimate data,” says study lead investigator, Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.
The new study findings are based on results of a survey conducted in June 2015. The survey group comprised an ethnically diverse population of 934 mobile phone users, of whom 263 (28 percent) say they use a health app to keep tabs on how long they sleep, what time they turn out the lights, whether they wake up in the middle of the night, and whether they snore, have trouble breathing, or change sleeping position.
In addition to the overall health and wealth of the majority of users, the results showed that more men than women track their sleep (35 percent versus 20 percent, respectively), and their average age skewed young, at 34. People with yearly incomes above $75,000 and those who already use a health app to remind them about taking their medications were also more likely to track their sleeping habits. Sleep app users typically had between 16 and 25 health apps on their smartphones.
The most popular apps for sleep tracking (of 24 health apps identified in the survey) are Fitbit (10 percent), Lose It (3.5 percent), and Apple Health (2.6 percent).