“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.
Unintentional Electronic Hacking
The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), an electronic device resembling a pacemaker, functions like an emergency room implanted in your chest. It monitors every heartbeat and can speed slow rates or slow fast rates to maintain an appropriate rate and rhythm. The ICD is particularly useful to treat abnormal heart rhythms responsible for cardiac arrest.
In my novel, Ripples in Opperman’s Pond, (iUniverse 2013), one of the characters had an ICD hacked by a villain who used it to kill him. I stressed the possibility that malicious hackers might be able to disrupt implanted electronic devices using wireless software communication.
Recent information suggests patients might unknowingly hack their own ICD; a strong external magnet held near the device can trigger a built-in switch that suspends operation.
The Apple iPhone 12 series contains an array of magnets used to align the iPhone on a wireless charger and increase charging speeds. When the iPhone 12 was brought close to an ICD implanted in a patient’s chest, it immediately suspended ICD therapies, an action that would inhibit life-saving treatment and render the ICD useless. The iPhone XS tested in a similar fashion did not exert this effect.
While the risk of such interference appears to be minimal from older smartphones not having the magnetic array, a recent case demonstrated magnetic interference from a fitness tracker wrist band that deactivated an ICD at distances up to 2.4 cm.
Patients should be warned to keep the iPhone 12 and similar devices containing strong magnets at safe distances from their ICD or pacemaker, and especially avoid placement in a chest pocket. The Apple website contains further information about magnetic interference with medical devices.
Cardiac Risk Factors at an Early Age
Like most of my young friends when we were growing up, we did not worry about developing heart problems, thinking those were issues more likely to affect our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles. Recent information indicates that attitude is head-in-the-sand behavior — abnormalities such as elevated cholesterol or high blood pressure can begin in the young and exert long term consequences years later.
Consider Elevated Cholesterol
The Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns Study examined abnormal cholesterol measured at adolescence, young adulthood, and mid-adulthood in almost 600 participants, and compared it with the development of coronary artery calcification (a well-established risk marker for coronary artery disease) when the participants reached mid-adulthood, almost thirty years later. The investigators found an association between coronary artery calcification and having elevated levels of abnormal cholesterol, especially in adolescence. This outcome suggests that abnormal cholesterol in the young can have an important impact years later, signifying it is important to monitor cholesterol throughout life and to consider appropriate management of abnormally elevated cholesterol, even in adolescents.
In the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, 3,000 participants with hypertension before age 35 were followed for 30 years. Investigators found that it was associated with worse midlife cognitive dysfunction than hypertension found at later ages. Early-onset hypertension is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death. Since hypertension, like abnormal cholesterol, can be treated, these results suggest that young individuals should have cholesterol and blood pressure checks to preserve cognitive function and reduce risk of coronary artery disease later in life.
Featured image: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock
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