If you think that erectile dysfunction is just a natural part of aging, think again.
For men, the inability to get and keep an erection affects their self-confidence and results in added stress in their relationships. But erectile dysfunction is not an isolated diagnosis. It carries systemic implications that can be an early warning sign of current — and even future — heart problems.
According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that erectile dysfunction affects one in 10 adult males in the United States. In most cases, men who suffer from erectile dysfunction also have low testosterone, and the research continues to grow that these are early warning signs of cardiovascular disease.
“Just like the heart, the penis is a vascular organ,” says Joseph Caputo, MD, a urologist and clinical program lead of men’s health and male infertility at Atlantic Health System. “Men who experience erectile dysfunction may have compromised penile blood flow and should talk with a doctor.
“Good blood flow to all the body’s organs, including the penis, is important to a man’s overall health. Of course, reduced blood flow is not always the cause, and we must consider psychological, neurological, and other anatomical factors. This discussion is part of my initial evaluation of all men with erectile dysfunction.”
More Than a Diminished Sex Drive
Dr. Caputo explains that the arteries that cause erections are much smaller than the arteries that pump blood away from the heart. Compromised blood flow in the smaller arteries of the penis can signal early heart disease years before other symptoms might ever surface.
Also, when it comes to heart disease risk factors, erectile dysfunction now carries equal weight to smoking and family history. Here are some of the contributing factors that negatively impact both heart and penile health:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Alcohol consumption
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Low testosterone
- Family history
Prevention and Treatment
By working towards a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking and moderating alcohol consumption, men can boost their testosterone levels, strengthen their erections, and decrease their risk for heart attack and stroke.
Although erectile dysfunction isn’t always linked to an underlying heart condition, before undergoing any treatments, men should get screened for heart disease.
Dr. Caputo counsels his patients on treatment options. He also encourages men to visit their primary care doctor or cardiologist for a complete health workup. This evaluation measures risk for heart disease, prediabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The doctor will also suggest lifestyle adjustments that can help move key health markers back into a normal range, if needed.
“Men are usually not proactive about getting evaluated for stroke or heart attack,” says Dr. Caputo. “But when we talk openly and honestly about how their overall health affects their sexual function, they’re willing to listen and, in many cases, take the next steps toward prevention.”
Be Proactive About Your Health
To stay safe and healthy, it's good to have a primary care provider who knows and understands your health history and wellness goals.