Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Advances from Harvard: Restless legs syndrome and coronary artery disease risk

While some studies have suggested a connection between heart disease and restless legs syndrome (RLS), a common condition characterized by an overwhelming urge to move the legs, usually at night, other studies have failed to confirm this association. Now, a review of the Nurses' Health Study brings us one step closer to understanding the relationship. As explained in the Oct. 2, 2102, issue of Circulation, researchers from Harvard's Channing Laboratory found that study participants with RLS lasting three years or more had an increased risk of developing coronary artery disease, and that this risk increased the longer a woman had RLS. In fact, RLS often preceded the diagnosis of coronary artery disease. Because the 71,000 study participants were primarily healthy women, this makes RLS a potential risk factor for the development of coronary artery disease.

The connection between leg movements and heart disease is easily explained. Up to 80% of people with RLS experience periodic limb movements of sleep, in which they move their legs 300 to 500 times a night. This activates the sympathetic nervous system, elevating heart rate and blood pressure. It also interrupts sleep, which is associated with increased heart risk. People with RLS are also more likely to have conditions such as high blood pressure, which raises their heart risk.

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