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Older men with restless legs show higher rates of erectile dysfunction

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

A new study shows that older men with restless leg syndrome (RLS) also suffer from higher rates of erectile dysfunction. The findings also show that increased frequency of restless leg syndrome leads to worsening erectile dysfunction for men.

For men who have restless leg syndrome 15 times a month or more, the incidence of erectile dysfunction was as high as seventy eight percent, and lower for those who experienced fewer episodes of RLS monthly.

The study, published in the journal Sleep suggests that restless leg syndrome and erectile dysfunction share the same mechanism.

For older men without restless leg syndrome the occurrence of erectile dysfunction was forty percent. For older men who reported restless leg syndrome, erectile dysfunction incidence was fifty three percent. The study came from an analysis of 23,119 men who participated in the Health Professional Follow-up Study. Information about erectile dysfunction and RLS was obtained via questionnaire. Average age of the men was 69, that included male dentists, optometrists, osteopaths, podiatrists, pharmacists and veterinarians in the US. Approximately four percent of the men had RLS.

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According to lead author Xiang Gao, MD, PhD, instructor at Harvard Medical School, associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and research scientist at the Harvard School of public health in Boston, Mass, "The mechanisms underlying the association between RLS and erectile dysfunction could be caused by hypofunctioning of dopamine in the central nervous system, which is associated with both conditions."

Scientists do not know what causes restless leg syndrome, a condition that is more prevalent in middle aged women and older adults. RLS causes frequent movement of the legs and uncomfortable sensations that interfere with sleep because of a persistent uncontrollable urge to move the legs. There are several identified factors that make restless leg syndrome worse, including stress, Parkinson’s disease, kidney disease, pregnancy, iron deficiency, and certain medications. Heredity might play a role, but the source of the condition has not yet been discovered.

The findings from the current study suggest that sleep apnea could play a role in both restless leg syndrome and erectile dysfunction through decreased levels of circulating testosterone.

The study is not conclusive in that it does not establish cause. The scientists say further studies are needed to uncover the biological mechanisms linking restless leg syndrome to erectile dysfunction in older men. For men who experience restless leg syndrome in addition to erectile dysfunction, a sleep study could be of benefit, and may be worth discussing with your physician.

Gao X; Schwarzschild MA; O’Reilly EJ; Wang H; Ascherio A. Restless legs syndrome and erectile dysfunction. SLEEP 2010;33(1):75-79