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Why Apple and Harvard want to track your period

Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

Cramps, bloating, fatigue—oh my! Half of the global population experiences menstruation and premenstrual syndrome at some point in life, but research around these topics mostly focuses on how menstruation symptoms impact women’s quality of life.

Additionally, the size and scope of the studies is usually limited and not representative of the general menstruating population. Apple, in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wants to change that by examining periods to find other insights about women's health and understand when period symptoms are actually indicative of more serious medical help.

The key benefit to studying menstruation is to provide more insight into illnesses that stem from menstrual symptoms and irregularities. For example, painful periods may signal endometriosis and no period may indicate a variety of possible sickness including endocrine system disease, hormonal imbalances, polycystic ovarian syndrome and other fertility issues.

The Women’s Health Study initiative aims to study menstruation and its impact on female health, while simultaneously destigmatizing menstruation and normalizing symptoms. Results from the initiative already show a wide variety of period symptoms, but also a prevalence of stigma that can make talking about menstruation and women's health more challenging.

In some parts of the world, simply mentioning menstruation is taboo, and menstruating women are considered impure. Lack of education around the subject and period poverty—or the inability to access or afford period products—only compound the problem.

“The preliminary data we are sharing today suggests women across the country have a shared experience of a wide range of menstrual symptoms, and that this natural monthly occurrence is something we should be having more discussions about,” said Shruthi Mahalingaiah, MD, one of the study’s principal investigators and assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

As part of the period study, more than 6,000 women tracked their menstruation-related symptoms using the Research app on an iPhone or Apple Watch. A whopping 83% reported abdominal cramps—and this was the most prevalent symptom among all races, while 63% reported feeling bloated and 61% noted fatigue or tiredness.

Half of women reported changes in mood and appetite. About 53% noted they got headaches, and 54% said they experienced acne. The preliminary report showed 48% reported lower back pain and 46% reported breast tenderness. About 37% of the participants noted they experienced diarrhea and sleep changes, while constipation and nausea were reported by 32% of the participants. Only 22% of women reported hot flashes and 20% said they experienced ovulation pain.

This is not the first time Apple has forayed into the healthcare research space. The tech giant previously enrolled 400,000 individuals for its heart study to evaluate irregular heart rhythms on its Apple Watch. The company is concurrently conducting research on the link between physical activity and heart health, as well as a hearing study.

Apple is also not alone in tracking menstruation symptoms. Numerous apps already exist for menstruating people to track their cycles and symptoms, such as Flo Health, though these platforms don't exist for study or data-collection purposes.

But more work needs to be done in studying menstruation symptoms and ending the stigma around it.

“We look forward to continuing our work to create a long-term, foundational data set over time, which can inspire more research going forward,” Mahalingaiah said.

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