Some of my over 40 male patients are concerned about whether or not they may have erectile dysfunction. We go over their symptoms (see below) and often times they do have a classic ED picture. However, when I ask these patients if anyone in their family has had heart disease, they’re frequently baffled at what that has to do with their ED? As I explain, though there are other causes of ED, recent research has shown that a man’s heart health can also be directly related to ED symptoms. Here’s why.
Your Heart and Your ED
The statistics are a little daunting – men who have even mild ED symptoms have a 25% greater risk of heart attack and/or stroke and those with more severe symptoms are at even greater risk. The upshot of those statistics are that ED is now considered a stronger predictor of heart disease risk than if someone in your family has heart disease, or if you smoke or have high cholesterol.
Though there are other causes of ED, when the heart is involved it’s all about blood flow to the penis and the lower body in general. In fact, another medical condition, restless leg syndrome, can also accompany ED as it stems from the same cause – decreased blood flow in the lower body.
The veins and vascular system are much smaller in size in the penis and a lack of sufficient blood flow shows up first in that organ. If there is buildup of plaque, or other blockages, in the cardiovascular system, less blood is able to get through to the rest of the body. It’s almost as if the body chooses to ignore the least important organ and more blood is shunted elsewhere to more life-sustaining organs.
Let’s be clear what ED is and what it’s symptoms can include:
- Inability to get, or keep, an erection over half the time. An occasional erection problem is nothing to worry about and likely the result of some other factor besides the heart.
- Tingling or numbness in the legs and feet.
There are several things that can cause ED, and most often they are the same things that cause heart disease and why heart health and ED are so closely linked:
- Smoking – causes damage to the vascular system. Decreases nitric oxide production.
- High cholesterol – contributes to hardened fat deposits/plaque lining the arteries.
- Lack of exercise – causes circulatory problems, deconditioning of muscles/arteries that help pump blood.
- Overweight – added tributaries develop to get blood to extra weight, putting a greater strain on the entire vascular system.
- High blood pressure – ED can be a side effect of anti-hypertensive drugs.
- Diabetes – ED can be a “domino” effect stemming from kidney damage and resultant high blood pressure, hardening of arteries.
Other causes of ED not associated with the heart can include:
- Back or pelvis injury: Damaged nerves or blood supply to the lower body can cause ED.
- Depression. Can cause, as well as be a symptom, of ED.
- Medications. Some prescription drugs, over-the-counter preparations, and perhaps even some alternative herbal substances could contribute to ED problems.
- Recreational substances. Alcohol and other recreational drugs can damage blood vessels and/or restrict blood flow to the penis.
Protect Your Heart, Treat Your ED
The most important thing you can do to both prevent heart attack and/or stroke, as well as help your ED, is to first talk to your doctor. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of arteries, is present in 50% to 60% of ED cases in men over 50, so assessing heart disease is very important.
Your doctor can assess how severe your ED is by doing specific urology tests that measure blood flow to the penis and specific heart related tests (EKG, stress test, angiogram) that can show how well your heart and vascular system is functioning.
Additionally you can do the following:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Overweight men are more likely to experience ED.
- Exercise. 4-5 times per week, 40 minutes each. ED responds well to frequent exercise as it increases nitric oxide levels in veins.
- Stop smoking. Allows veins to open up and help blood to flow better.
- Control diabetes and/or high cholesterol. Eat a diabetic and heart healthy diet that keeps blood sugars stable, with no trans fats, and limits cholesterol to under 200 mg/day.
- Address depression. If you are chronically depressed, it may be either causing your ED, or it may be a symptom of it. Be sure to mention it to your doctor as well.
As I tell my male patients, an occasional problem with erectile dysfunction is normal, happens to all men at some point, and is usually nothing to be concerned about. In fact, about 52% of men between 40-70 experience some degree of ED and men over 70 experience it about 70% of the time. That said; even though most men experience ED at some point, don’t ignore symptoms of ED, as you could put yourself at higher risk for suffering a heart attack/stroke. The sooner you know what your risk is, the sooner you can reduce that risk and stay healthy!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Erectile Problem Checklist, http://www.webmd.com/erectile-dysfunction/guide/erection-problem-checklist
Can Erectile Dysfunction Indicate Heart Attack Risk? http://www.webmd.com/erectile-dysfunction/guide/erection-problem-checklist
Photo Credit: menz.com