Studies have shown that most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps to track their sleeping habits are relatively affluent. Sleep-tracking app users also claim that they eat well and say they are in good health, although there are some who say they tend to smoke cigarettes.
These findings were the results of the first national survey of sleep-specific mobile health app use among men and women in the United States. The researchers were surprised to find that the main users of these apps are affluent people.
The survey was led by researchers at the NYU School of Medicine and was funded by Verizon.
Researchers say that the use of mobile devices to monitor daily habits may offer healthcare providers a way to more quickly diagnose and more effectively treat sleep problems. Sleep problems are often tied to increased rates of heart disease, cancers and diabetes. This approach was supported by a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, which proved that the amount of mobile time Americans spend tracking health habits is second to the time spent surfing the internet.
The NYU School of Medicine researchers says that the value of sleep apps to users of sleep specialists is so far unclear.
They say the current study sets the stage for future investigations to determine what aspects of sleep can be measured effectively by the apps, and how the measurements can be used to gauge good and bad changes in sleep patterns.
"People are getting all this information on their sleep patterns and not really knowing how to interpret it, or even if it's legitimate data," says study lead investigator, Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.
The study findings are based on results of a survey that was conducted in June 2015. The survey was made of an ethnically diverse population of 934 cell phone users; 263 of them, or 28 percent, say they use a health app in order to keep tabs on how long they sleep, what time they turn off the lights, if they wake up in the middle of the night, if they snore, have trouble breathing or change sleeping position.
In addition to overall health and wealth of the majority of users, the results have shown that more men than women track their sleep. Of men, 35 percent track their sleep, while only 20 percent of women do. The average age was 34 years old. People with yearly incomes above $75,000 and those who already use a health app to remind them about taking medications were also more likely to track their sleeping habits. Sleep app users typically have between 16 and 25 health apps on their smartphones.
The most popular apps for sleep tracking are Fitbit, Lost It and Apple Health.
"Sleep apps are very popular among a diverse group of Americans, and they have a lot of them to choose from," says Robbins.
According to Dustin Duncan, Sc.D., senior study investigator and epidemiologist, the trend toward self-monitoring of health factors, like sleep, is growing. He and Robbins plan to work with app manufacturers to validate their measurements. Until then, health professionals will not know how to use these apps to help people change their behaviors to improve their health.
When it is validated, sleep apps could become a powerful tool as a "health coach" but also a "sleep coach." Ideally, it is hoped that mobile apps will serve as a key tool for monitoring patients between checkups.
For the study, participants answered 36 detailed questions about their mobile phone and app use. As part of the study design, surveyors recruited participants traditionally underrepresented in other surveys about mobile phone use, including minorities and people with low incomes. More than half of the participating in the new survey has annual incomes of less than $50,000. The average age of all survey respondents was 47.
The study was published in Health Communication.