Erectile Dysfunction and Heart Disease
Erectile dysfunction (ED) is defined as the inability for a man to attain and maintain an erection rigid enough for sex. Men can experience this problem at any age and for various reasons. As men age, the problem is most often due to poor blood flow, and this pattern is known as vasculogenic ED. Vasculogenic ED is often the very first sign of a change in cardiovascular health and precedes the onset of a significant cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, by 3 to 5 years. When ED is present, this “canary in the coalmine” symptom gives men an important window of opportunity to address their cardiovascular risk factors and prevent serious health issues.
What is the link between erectile dysfunction and heart disease?
An erection happens when stimulation triggers nerve signals to the blood vessels in the penis. Cells that line the blood vessels, called endothelial cells, respond by producing nitric oxide. This causes the blood vessels to dilate and allow a sufficient amount of blood to flow into the penis to produce an erection. When the endothelial cells that line the arteries are damaged by factors like diabetes, hypertension, or smoking, the blood vessel loses its elasticity and blood flow is impaired. The result is a progressive decline in a man’s ability to attain and maintain a rigid erection. Endothelial dysfunction is also the first step in the buildup of cholesterol plaque in the coronary arteries and is the link between ED and cardiovascular disease.
Studies linking erectile dysfunction with cardiovascular risk show the strongest association with younger men in their 40s and 50s. These men may not have any symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain when they exert themselves and may not think that they are at risk. Men presenting with ED should have an assessment of the common risks for cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, diabetes, and smoking. This information can be used to estimate their risk of a cardiovascular event, and if their risk is elevated, they should have additional testing. A test called a coronary artery calcium score can be performed to detect the buildup of cholesterol plaque in the blood vessels in the heart before it has progressed enough to cause symptoms. If cholesterol plaque is present, men can adopt healthy lifestyle changes to stop the progression of the problem. If the cholesterol plaque is extensive, men should be evaluated by a cardiologist and management may include the addition of medication like a statin or aspirin.
The association between erectile dysfunction and cardiovascular risk is also seen in men with diabetes and in men with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. These men should also be routinely screened for changes in sexual function.
Can erectile dysfunction and heart disease be prevented?
Like many other health conditions, simple lifestyle changes can be made to help decrease the risk of heart disease and related health concerns such as erectile dysfunction. These changes include:
- Incorporating more plants in your diet or moving to a plant-based diet
- Making sure to get the recommended amount of exercise
- Identifying ways to help lower your stress level
- Creating and maintaining a healthy sleep routine
- Talking with someone you trust or a professional about mental health concerns
Can I use erectile dysfunction medications if I have heart disease?
Men with cardiovascular disease are more likely to experience sexual dysfunction. While lifestyle changes are the foundation for treating heart disease and improving sexual health, some patients may need medications to assist with their erectile dysfunction. The good news is that medications commonly used to treat this condition are safe to use even after having a cardiovascular event. More recent studies suggest that medications for erectile dysfunction may even help to improve cardiovascular health and reduce risk for cardiovascular events. Men who are having symptoms, such as shortness of breath or chest pain, should always be evaluated before starting treatment for erectile dysfunction, and all men should check with their doctor about drug interactions before starting a new medication.
Talk with your doctor about your concerns
If you have noticed that you’re having difficulty attaining or sustaining an erection, contact your primary care physician to discuss your concerns. If your doctor recommends more specialized care, The Men’s Health Center at The Miriam Hospital can help.
About the Author:
Mark Paulos, MD
Dr. Mark Paulos is an internist and co-director of the Men’s Health Center at The Miriam Hospital. He is board certified in internal medicine and lifestyle medicine and associate professor of medicine and urology at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. In his practice, he focuses on the link between sexual health disorders and metabolic and cardiovascular health.
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