Many still see erectile dysfunction (ED) as a purely sexual issue, but research suggests it’s much more than that. In fact, there appears to be a link between ED and heart disease. As several studies have reported, ED may be one of the first signs of cardiovascular problems for many men.
ED and your heart
An erection is the result of extra blood flow to your penis that fills and swells its blood vessels. Any time something interferes with blood flow to your penis’s blood vessels, an erection will be difficult to get or maintain.
This can happen when heart disease clogs or hardens your arteries, in a condition known as atherosclerosis. The small blood vessels and arteries in your body, such as those in your penis, are often affected by atherosclerosis. As a result, ED can be a sign of heart disease.
Risk factors for ED and heart disease
Erectile dysfunction and heart disease share many of the same risk factors, including:
- high blood pressure
- high blood cholesterol
As you get older, your risk of both ED and heart disease increases. But the connection between these conditions is stronger among younger men, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you experience ED under the age of 50, it’s more likely to be a sign of underlying heart problems. If you experience it after the age of 70, it’s much less likely to be linked to heart disease.
High blood pressure
When your blood pressure is high for an extended time, it can damage the lining of your arteries and interfere with your blood flow. This appears to affect your ability to get and maintain an erection. A 2012 study published in the journal Current Opinion in Nephrology and Hypertension found that approximately 30 percent of men with hypertension complain of ED.
High blood cholesterol
High blood cholesterol can also damage your arteries. The buildup of cholesterol in your arteries can clog them and restrict your blood flow. This can contribute to ED, as well as heart disease.
Smoking damages your arteries and increases your risk of atherosclerosis. Tobacco use has also been linked to ED. A 2006 study published in Tobacco Control examined survey data from 8,367 Australian men, aged 16 to 59 years old. The researchers found a significant link between smoking and ED.
Carrying excess weight is also linked to heart disease, atherosclerosis, circulation problems, and sexual dysfunction.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that the presence of ED in men with type 2 diabetes and no obvious signs of cardiovascular disease predicted coronary heart disease. People with diabetes are at higher risk of heart disease. They’re also more likely to develop ED than people without diabetes.
Depression has been linked to both ED and heart disease. According to an article published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, men with sexual dysfunction and severe symptoms of depression may have a higher risk of cardiovascular events.
What you can do now
Many men with ED find the topic hard to talk about, even to their doctors. But speaking to your doctor about your symptoms is crucial. Your doctor can help you learn if heart disease is responsible for your ED.
Your doctor can also recommend treatment options for your ED and associated conditions. An early diagnosis can help you get the treatment that you need. If you have heart disease, early treatment could potentially add years to your life.
Along with prescription medications, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes. These changes may improve your ED and help keep your heart’s health in check.
For example, your doctor may advise you to:
- change your diet
- increase your physical activity
- lose excess weight
- drink less alcohol
- quit smoking
These changes can help limit the damage to your blood vessels and arteries, which can help improve your heart health and sexual function.