April 6, 2009 / 8:38 PM / 10 years ago

Obesity may raise risk of restless legs syndrome

A man sits on a wall in the Canary Wharf financial district of London, April 1, 2009. REUTERS/Simon Newman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who are obese may have an increased risk of developing the neurological disorder restless legs syndrome (RLS), researchers reported Monday.

In a study of more than 88,000 U.S. adults, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that obese men and women were 42 percent more likely to have RLS than normal-weight study participants.

Abdominal obesity, in particular, was linked to RLS risk. Study participants with the largest waistlines had a 60 percent greater risk than those with the trimmest midsections, according to findings published in the journal Neurology.

RLS causes unpleasant sensations in the legs when a person is at rest, triggering an uncontrollable urge to move the legs to get relief. The cause is unknown, but researchers suspect that an imbalance in the movement-regulating brain chemical dopamine plays a role. Drugs that increase dopamine activity are sometimes used to treat RLS.

Past research has shown that obese adults tend to have lower dopamine activity in the brain than their thinner counterparts, but the relationship between obesity and RLS has been unclear.

“Our study suggests that obesity could be a risk factor for RLS,” lead researcher Dr. Xiang Gao told Reuters Health. However, the findings do not prove that obesity leads to RLS, and further studies that follow people over time are needed to confirm obesity as a risk factor, Gao added.

In theory, dopamine could help explain the connection between obesity and RLS. But Gao said there are likely to be multiple mechanisms through which excess weight contributes to the neurological disorder.

One possibility, he noted, is the higher risk of heart disease among overweight adults. Studies have found links between cardiovascular disease and RLS, and it’s thought that dysfunction in the blood vessels may play a role in RLS.

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