According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 100 million U.S. adults are living with diabetes or prediabetes (a condition that can lead to type 2 diabetes if not treated). Diabetes can often be managed through physical activity, diet, and medications to control blood sugar levels, but many of those with diabetes are undiagnosed, and nearly nine out of ten people with prediabetes aren’t aware they have it.  Now a new study indicates that heart rate sensors on smart watches — when paired with an artificial intelligence-based algorithm — can identify early signs of diabetes.

According to a recent interview with health startup Cardiogram co-founders Johnson Hsieh and Brandon Ballinger, Cardiogram and University of California San Francisco (UCSF) researchers found that typical heart rate sensors like those in the Apple Watch, Android Wear, Garmin, or Fitbits, can detect early signs of diabetes. The research study recruited 14,011 users of Cardiogram for Apple Watch and Android Wear to participate in the UCSF Health eHeart Study. 33,628 person-weeks of health sensor data was used to train a deep neural network by presenting it with samples from people with and without diabetes, as well as other health conditions. Hsieh and Ballinger say researchers were able to validate the accuracy of the deep neural network, known as DeepHeart, in “distinguishing between people with and without diabetes, achieving 85% accuracy on a large data set which included 200 million heart rate and step count measurements.” As Hsieh pointed out, because the heart is connected with the pancreas via the autonomic nervous system, when people develop the early stages of diabetes, their pattern of heart rate variability shifts, which the Cardiogram app detects.

Hsieh and Ballinger say this is first large-scale study showing that ordinary heart rate sensors paired with an artificial intelligence-based algorithm can identify factors that signal diabetes. Detecting diabetes early can help people live longer, healthier lives, and alleviate the financial burden of treating the disease. Cardiogram is currently compatible with Apple Watch and any Android Wear watch with a heart rate sensor. The app can be downloaded from the Apple App store or Google Play.