Erectile dysfunction and heart disease – what is the connection?

Erectile dysfunction (ED), also known as impotence, is the inability to attain and sustain a strong erection suitable for sexual intercourse. The condition often occurs at any age in a man’s life, but it’s more common in aging adults. Infertility, low sex drive, and premature ejaculation are not the same as ED, but one or more of these issues may be linked to it.

It’s estimated that about 10% of adult men suffer from ED on a long-term basis. The much more common condition is the occasional inability to achieve an erection, and this can occur as a result of various reasons such as extreme fatigue or too much drinking.

Inability to achieve a meaningful erection less than 20% of the time is considered normal and one will rarely need treatment. Failure to achieve an erection more than 50% of the time is an indication that there is a physical or psychological problem (or both) that needs to be treated.

While it tends to be more prevalent in senior men, ED is not a normal part of aging. So older men should still be able to achieve an erection and enjoy sex and intimacy. There is, however, a growing revelation indicating that erectile dysfunction is connected to heart disease and other circulatory problems.

Erectile dysfunction and heart disease –the correlation

From a purely mechanical point of view, an erection is hydraulic in nature –extra blood flows to the penis, held there for a while and then drained away. If this blood is interfered with, an erection might not happen.

The most common reason for blood flow interference is a process known as atherosclerosis, which is when the artery clogs. This is also the root cause of heart attacks, strokes, angina, and other cardiovascular conditions. The primary consequence of atherosclerosis is the accumulation of plaque (usually from cholesterol) inside the arteries. This plaque can inhibit the flow of blood through the artery.

The effect of atherosclerosis on health depends on what organ or tissue the plaque-clogged artery nourishes. For instance, a plaque-damaged coronary artery can cause a heart attack or chest pain with stress or exercise. If it happens to an artery nourishing the brain, it can cause dementia, memory loss or stroke. Atherosclerosis in the arteries supplying blood to the penis can prevent sufficient blood flow required to achieve and sustain an erection.

While there’re many other causes of ED, problems with blood vessels are the number one reason. So in essence, an erection serves as a barometer indicating the overall health of your circulatory system. An erectile dysfunction can, therefore, serve as an early warning indicator of trouble in your heart or elsewhere. In fact, erectly dysfunction share a lot of risk factors with heart disease.

Risk factors for erectile dysfunction and heart disease

A wide range of risk factors that contribute to ED have also been linked to heart disease. Some researchers even believe that ED occurs predominantly as a result of an underlying cardiovascular disease. Here are some of the risk factors that these two conditions share.

  • Age: as you age, your risk of developing both erectile dysfunctions and heart disease increases. However, the link between these two conditions is stronger in younger men. If you experience erectly dysfunctions below the age of 50, there are very high chances that you could be having an underlying heart problem. If it occurs after 70 years, it’s less likely to be associated with heart disease.
  • High blood pressure: extended high blood pressure has been shown to damage the lining of the arteries which often interferes with blood flow. This affects the ability to achieve and maintain a strong erection. A study published in 2012 in the Current Opinion in Nephrology and Hypertension journal revealed that about 30% of men suffering from hypertension also complain of ED
  • Smoking: smoking generally increases your risk of developing atherosclerosis and damages your arteries. Use of tobacco has also been linked to ED. A Study carried out on 8,367 men and published in Tobacco Control revealed a significant link between ED and smoking.
  • High blood cholesterol: high levels of cholesterol in your blood can also damage the arteries. Cholesterol buildup in your arteries can lead to clogging and restrict blood flow. As you may have guessed, this contributes to both ED and heart disease.
  • Obesity/Overweight: Excessive weight has also been linked to atherosclerosis, circulation problems, heart disease, and by extension, sexual dysfunction.
  • Depression: A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine by Bandini E et al strongly links depression to both heart disease and ED. It reveals that men showing severe depression symptoms and ED may have a higher risk of experiencing cardiovascular events.
  • Diabetes: According to an article published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology by Ma RC et al, the presence of erectile dysfunction in adult men with type 2 diabetes predicted coronary heart disease. Generally, people suffering from diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease. Additionally, they’re also at higher risk of developing ED compared to people without diabetes.

Way forward; what can you do now?

Most men with erectile dysfunction find the topic quite difficult to discuss, even with their doctors. However, it’s important that you speak to your doctor about the symptoms. They can help you determine if the ED is associated with heart disease.

The doctor can also recommend a number of treatment options for the ED and associated conditions. Going for an earlier diagnosis can help you get the best medication in good time. If the diagnosis reveals a heart disease, initiating early treatment can literally add more years to your life.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes along with medical prescriptions. These adjustments can help improve your ED situation and keep your heart healthier. Here some of the changes that might be recommended.

  • Quit smoking
  • Lose excess weight
  • Change your diet
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Increase your physical activity/exercise
The changes above can help you reduce the damage to your arteries and vessels, and improve your sexual function as well as your heart’s health. Further tests and treatment might, however, be required if you have more serious symptoms and signs of heart disease, ED or both.

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