Story at a glance

  • Only half of the 75 million people with high blood pressure in the U.S. know it. Hypertension is known as a silent killer because it can go unnoticed and lead to strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and kidney disease.
  • Now, a wearable tech company says it has developed an accurate blood pressure sensor so small that it may show up in a new pair of earbuds later this year.
  • The sensor can’t provide a medical diagnosis but could spur life-saving trips to the doctor or help people monitor their stress level throughout the day.

One in 3 Americans has high blood pressure, which can lead to strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and kidney disease. Keeping track of it isn’t very easy outside the doctor’s office, and for those struggling to keep their blood pressure under control a quick and convenient monitoring device could help put their mind at ease or motivate healthier habits. Still more people may not even know they have high blood pressure at all.

Now, wearable component maker Valencell says it has found a way to get continuous, accurate blood pressure readings from an optical sensor small enough to fit in the average earbud, Gizmodo reports.

The shrunk-down optical sensor is the same type used by smart watches to measure heart rate. Valencell says its device should be on par with the cuffs used in doctors offices, identifying high blood pressure with 89 percent accuracy. The company says those numbers are based on 15,000 datasets from more than 5,000 people. A second round of successful validation took place using nurses who were not employed by Valencell, and in accordance with protocol developed for standardizing blood pressure readings.

The new sensor also gets its reading in just 30 seconds, which is faster than the inflatable cuff method. The company says the ear is an ideal place to take a blood pressure reading because it gets good blood flow and remains a more or less fixed distance from the heart.

Valencell notes that its sensor is not meant to replace medical-grade diagnostic equipment, but of the 75 million people with hypertension only half know it, and more frequent monitoring could spur a life-saving visit to the doctor. As a general wellness tool, the sensor could also be paired with meditation applications to see how the user’s blood pressure changes over the course of meditating. Those looking to keep an eye on their stress levels could also benefit from continuous blood pressure monitoring — which Valencell says is a good indicator of overall health or stress.

The company has been working on this sensor since 2009, but Valencell’s president told Gizmodo that earbuds featuring its new tech are likely to emerge before the end of 2020.

Published on Jan 10, 2020