Erectile dysfunction — difficulty maintaining an erection sufficient for sex — can be an early warning sign of heart problems. Understanding the connections between the two may help you get treatment before heart problems become serious. Likewise, if you have heart disease, getting the right treatment may help with erectile dysfunction.
Clogged arteries: Where erectile dysfunction and heart disease meet
Atherosclerosis (ath-ur-o-skluh-ROE-sis) — sometimes called hardening of the arteries — is the buildup of plaques in the arteries of your body. The smaller arteries in the body, such as in the penis, are the first to get plugged up. The plaque reduces blood flow in the penis, making an erection difficult. Erectile dysfunction is an alert to look for atherosclerosis in larger arteries supplying your heart and other organs and to take steps to treat it. Atherosclerosis also increases your risk of other problems, including aneurysm, stroke and peripheral artery disease.
Certain men are at increased risk
Besides sharing a common disease process, erectile dysfunction and heart disease also share many risk factors. These risk factors increase the likelihood that your erectile dysfunction could be a sign of underlying atherosclerosis and heart disease:
- Having diabetes. Men who have diabetes are at especially high risk of erectile dysfunction, heart disease and other problems caused by restricted blood flow.
- Having high cholesterol. A high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis.
- Being a smoker. Smoking cigarettes raises your risk of developing atherosclerosis. It also directly affects your ability to get an erection.
- Having high blood pressure. Over time, high blood pressure damages the lining of your arteries and accelerates the process of atherosclerosis.
- Having a family member with heart disease. It's more likely your erectile dysfunction could be linked to heart disease if you have a first-degree relative such as a sibling or parent who had heart disease at a young age.
- Your age. The younger you are, the more likely that erectile dysfunction signals a risk of heart disease. Men younger than 50 are at especially high risk. In men older than 70, erectile dysfunction is much less likely to be a sign of heart disease.
- Being overweight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of both heart disease and erectile dysfunction due to atherosclerosis and other reasons.
- Being depressed. There's some evidence that depression is associated with an increased chance of having heart problems — and erectile dysfunction.
Treatment for erectile dysfunction caused by heart disease
If your doctor thinks you may be at risk of heart disease, making lifestyle changes such as exercising, changing your diet or losing weight may be enough to help keep your heart healthy — and improve your ability to have an erection. If you have more-serious signs and symptoms of heart disease, you may need further tests or treatment. If you have both erectile dysfunction and heart disease, talk to your doctor about treatment options for erectile dysfunction. If you take certain heart medications, especially nitrates, it is not safe to use many of the medications used to treat erectile dysfunction.