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Using Wearable Sensors to Advance Cancer Research

photograph of accelerometer on a desk

Wearable sensors encompass a broad range of electronic monitoring tools that individuals may wear as accessories for self-monitoring purposes to capture bodily motion and a variety of other physiological signals including heart rate, temperature, light exposure, and skin galvanic response. This information is used to estimate a range of behavioral exposures. Advances in wearable technologies have created new opportunities to improve our assessments of human behavior using digital biomarkers related to the amount, timing, and quality of sleep, light exposure, and physical activity over multiple 24-hour cycles.

The goal of this line of research is to increase the availability of these measures in cancer epidemiologic cohorts and conduct etiologic studies of physical activity, sleep, and cancer.

Methods Development

Our team uses data from the Interactive Diet and Activity Tracking in AARP (iDATA) to examine the validity and reproducibility of research-grade monitors. We have examined the validity of activity monitor-derived estimates of energy expenditure, physical activity, and sedentary time. We have also examined the reproducibility of activity monitor measures of sedentary time, physical activity intensity, and step counts, over a 1-year period. This work has provided new insights for interpreting our etiologic results and it informs the design of future epidemiological studies of cancer that employ wearable sensor technologies.

Our team is also currently evaluating the quality of sleep, light, and physical activity exposures derived from a variety of research- and consumer-based monitors And whether information from these multiple exposures can be integrated to better characterize human behavior.

Etiologic Studies

We have worked extensively with the activity monitor data collected in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Our work has examined the dose response between accelerometry measured sedentary, light, and moderate-vigorous intensity activity and mortality, finding that both light and moderate-vigorous activity were associated with lower mortality risk. We also investigated whether short or long bouts of moderate-vigorous intensity activity were more strongly associated with mortality risk and found that bout length was less important than the total amount of physical activity. Additionally, we quantified the dose-response for steps per day and mortality risk from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality, and whether stepping at a higher intensity is important for health. We found that accumulating more steps per day was associated with substantial health benefits and that intensity was less important than the total number of steps per day. More recently we estimated that if all U.S. adults increased their daily activity by just 10 minutes per day, 110,000 deaths per year could be prevented in the country.

Our ongoing work is focused on investigating the links between sleep, physical activity, and cancer risk using commercially available and research-grade wearable sensors.

For more information, contact Charles Matthews, Ph.D.

Metabolic Epidemiology Branch - Research Areas

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