Smartphones and Powerlines - Can They Cause a Glitch with Pacemakers? Maybe!

You want your heart to beat correctly, and for many people, a pacemaker will help you maintain the proper heartbeat. Will your smartphone affect it? That is a big maybe.

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Smartphones and Powerlines - Can They Cause a Glitch with Pacemakers? Maybe!
3 Min Read June 18th, 2021

You, or a loved one, maybe one of the three million people worldwide with a pacemaker. Most people with a pacemaker are aged 60 or older, although some younger people, including children, require the device. 

Pacemakers are used to treat a slow beating heart, a condition called "bradycardia." According to the American Heart Association, a person's heart usually beats about 50 to 70 times each minute. The heart rate may increase 2- to 3-fold during stress or exercise. However, if a person's heart beats too slowly, the brain and body do not get enough blood flow, and various symptoms may result.

Slow Heartbeat Can be Fatal

Since extreme slowing or the complete stopping of the heartbeat can be fatal, a pacemaker is used to maintain that heart rate. Protecting the pacemaker becomes essential. With so much technology that generates radio and electrical frequency, can this interfere in the operation of a pacemaker and thus threaten a person's life? The answer is, maybe.

Ten years ago, available research at the time indicated this radio and electrical interference could be dangerous. That's why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended keeping mobile devices — and the radiofrequency energy they emit — at least 6 inches away from cardiac devices.

Now with advances in technology, should we still be worried. The answer is maybe. A European research study with more than 300 people participated to see if there would be a problem with their pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). 

Research Indicates Most People are Safe

Three common smartphones were used in the test (HTC One XL, Nokia Lumia, and Samsung Galaxy 3). Researchers placed the phone directly over the spot where a cardiac device had been implanted to see what would happen. 

What happened? Almost nothing. Only one person was affected by smartphone use. 

"Even in worst-case-scenario testing of phones and other mobile devices, there is little to worry about," says Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Bruce Wilkoff, MD (he was not involved in the study).

It is doubtful that symptoms will occur with normal use, according to Wilkoff. However, to be safe, Dr. Wilkoff does recommend one precaution.

"Don't put a phone in a shirt or jacket pocket on the same side as your pacemaker or ICD," he says. "This will eliminate all risk." Some doctors also recommend holding phones to the ear furthest from the cardiac device.

Don't Stand Under Powerlines for Long Periods

What about high-voltage power lines and substations? Could they potentially trigger the same problems for pacemakers and ICDs? The answer is yes, but it's unlikely, according to a second European study.

Forty cardiac devices were tested by researchers and were exposed to a range of voltages. There was no concern as long as the cardiac devices were programmed correctly.

"Walking, running, biking, or otherwise crossing under power lines is safe," says Dr. Wilkoff. 

"Staying under them for too long may be an unnecessary risk, however," he explained.

Magnets in devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbits are another mild threat to those with pacemakers. But Dr. Wilkoff says that for most people with pacemakers or ICDs, the risk of any environmental interference is minimal.

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About the Author

Linda is a former journalist who now enjoys writing about topics she is interested in so she “can keep her mind active and engaged”.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

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