Most people just want to get a good night’s sleep, but that’s not always easy. Snoring can disturb the slumber of both the individual who snores and anyone who shares the same sleeping space. The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study found that nearly one in four people have some degree of sleep apnea, a condition in which subjects stop breathing while they sleep. This is more than an inconvenience or annoyance; the study found that people with 30 or more pauses per hour during sleep were five times more likely to die cardiovascular problems during the 18 year study than those who had fewer than five pauses. This becomes even more serious when you consider that 85% of sleep apnea cases go undiagnosed.

Why is this condition so widely ignored? In part, it is because many people are not aware of the increased health risk that it poses. Obstructive sleep apnea is also associated with obesity, and individuals have a difficult time losing weight in general. Finally, the diagnosis can’t be performed in a physician’s office during a normal visit. Typically, it requires a trip to a sleep center where the patient has to spend the night hooked up to wires and other monitoring devices. This is inconvenient and intrusive, so many people don’t get around to getting tested even if they are aware that they might have a problem.

What if your smartphone could tell you whether or not you have a sleep apnea problem? ResApp is an Australian company that we’ve written about before. They have created a smartphone app that can diagnose a child’s cough from a sound sample, and chronic breathing conditions in adults. The company now is turning its technology to address obstructive sleep apnea. Using a smartphone to monitor the sounds of a subject’s breathing while asleep, the company has conducted preliminary research with more than 700 subjects. They report that the study achieved 86% sensitivity and 83% specificity in diagnosing sleep apnea, compared with the gold-standard sleep center data. If this app can become widely available, individuals would have a fast, easy, and convenient way to screen themselves for this condition. This in turn could help healthcare professionals provide treatment to lower their risks of further complications or even death.

The use of the pocket computers that we know as “smartphones” for diagnosing medical conditions is growing rapidly. It is possible that this technology’s biggest impact on our lives may be in the health and medical areas, not simply communications and access to information.