JMIR mHealth and uHealth

Associations between heart rate variability measured with a wrist-worn sensor and older adults’ physical function: Observational study

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Background: Heart rate variability (HRV), or variation in beat-to-beat intervals of the heart, is a quantitative measure of autonomic regulation of the cardiovascular system. Low HRV derived from electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings is reported to be related to physical frailty in older adults. Recent advances in wearable technology offer opportunities to more easily integrate monitoring of HRV into regular clinical geriatric health assessments. However, signals obtained from ECG versus wearable photoplethysmography (PPG) devices are different, and a critical first step preceding their widespread use is to determine whether HRV metrics derived from PPG devices also relate to older adults’ physical function. Objective: This study aimed to investigate associations between HRV measured with a wrist-worn PPG device, the Empatica E4 sensor, and validated clinical measures of both objective and self-reported physical function in a cohort of older adults living independently within a continuing care senior housing community. Our primary hypothesis was that lower HRV would be associated with lower physical function. In addition, we expected that HRV would explain a significant proportion of variance in measures of physical health status. Methods: We evaluated 77 participants from an ongoing study of older adults aged between 65 and 95 years. The assessments encompassed a thorough examination of domains typically included in a geriatric health evaluation. We collected HRV data with the Empatica E4 device and examined bivariate correlations between HRV quantified with the triangular index (HRV TI) and 3 widely used and validated measures of physical functioning—the Short Physical Performance Battery (SPPB), Timed Up and Go (TUG), and Medical Outcomes Study Short Form 36 (SF-36) physical composite scores. We further investigated the additional predictive power of HRV TI on physical health status, as characterized by SF-36 physical composite scores and Cumulative Illness Rating Scale for Geriatrics (CIRS-G) scores, using generalized estimating equation regression analyses with backward elimination. Results: We observed significant associations of HRV TI with SPPB (n=52; Spearman ρ=0.41; P=.003), TUG (n=51; ρ=−0.40; P=.004), SF-36 physical composite scores (n=49; ρ=0.37; P=.009), and CIRS-G scores (n=52, ρ=−0.43; P=.001). In addition, the HRV TI explained a significant proportion of variance in SF-36 physical composite scores (R2=0.28 vs 0.11 without HRV) and CIRS-G scores (R2=0.33 vs 0.17 without HRV). Conclusions: The HRV TI measured with a relatively novel wrist-worn PPG device was related to both objective (SPPB and TUG) and self-reported (SF-36 physical composite) measures of physical function. In addition, the HRV TI explained additional variance in self-reported physical function and cumulative illness severity beyond traditionally measured aspects of physical health. Future steps include longitudinal tracking of changes in both HRV and physical function, which will add important insights regarding the predictive value of HRV as a biomarker of physical health in older adults.