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Erectile dysfunction isn't just about sex. It could be a major sign of heart disease, study says

A new study has found one of the strongest links between erectile dysfunction and heart disease to date - and that association remains even after accounting for things like smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
A new study has found one of the strongest links between erectile dysfunction and heart disease to date - and that association remains even after accounting for things like smoking, high blood pressure or cholesterol levels. American Heart Association

For many men, erectile dysfunction is a frustrating condition that can get in the way of a normal sex life. About 30 million men in America are affected by the condition, which makes it difficult for them to get or keep an erection, according to the National Institute of Diet and Diabetes and Kidney Diseases.

But a new study published in the journal Circulation warns that erectile dysfunction could be more than a bedroom problem. It may be a warning that serious heart trouble looms on the horizon.

“Our results reveal that erectile dysfunction is, in and of itself, a potent predictor of cardiovascular risk,” the study's senior investigator Michael Blaha said in a news release. “Our findings suggest that clinicians should perform further targeted screening in men with erectile dysfunction, regardless of other cardiac risk factors and should consider managing any other risk factors — such as high blood pressure or cholesterol — that much more aggressively.”

The causes of ED are not clear, although scientists know of a few connections. Diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and other conditions may cause or contribute to ED. It can also begin if you start taking certain medications, or it may be caused by psychological issues like fear of sexual failure or low self-esteem.

Scientists have known about a connection between erectile dysfunction and heart disease for some time. A 2011 Harvard report, for instance, warned that erectile dysfunction may be a sign that plaque had blocked arteries and was preventing blood-flow to that area of the body.

But researchers say this new study is the "strongest indication to date" that the condition is a major indicator of increased heart disease risk. One reason is because scientists took into account other factors like smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol and still found a major connection.

For the study, researchers followed more than 1,900 men between ages ages 60 to 78 over four years. During that time, those with erectile dysfunction were twice as likely to have suffered a heart attack or stroke. When other factors like smoking, abnormal blood pressure or cholesterol were removed, the risk dropped — but only slightly.

The researchers say men don't pay much attention to signs of heart disease, but they sure do pay attention when their sex life suffers.

The researchers say doctors should consider beginning evaluations of cardiovascular health for men who come to them asking for help with erectile dysfunction.

“The onset of ED should prompt men to seek comprehensive cardiovascular risk evaluation from a preventive cardiologist,” Blaha said in the news release. “It is incredible how many men avoid the doctor and ignore early signs of cardiovascular disease, but present for the first time with a chief complaint of ED. This is a wonderful opportunity to identify otherwise undetected high-risk cases."

Under the new guidelines, the number of adults with high blood pressure will rise to 103 million from 72 million. Hypertension is the leading cause of heart disease and heart-related deaths in the U.S. and worldwide.

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