Erectile Dysfunction May Be a Sign of Heart Disease

At some time in their life, all men will experience erectile dysfunction (ED), the inability to get or keep an erection firm enough to engage in sexual intercourse. Although erectile dysfunction is sometimes called "impotence," impotence refers to other problems that interfere with the sexual act, such as low libido, or lack of sexual desire, and problems with ejaculation or orgasm.  And while ED is often distressing to men and their partners, it isn't a life-threatening condition. However, ED can be an early warning sign of a serious health problem: heart disease.

The connection between ED and coronary artery disease is that both conditions are caused by blocked blood vessels, which lead to insufficient blood flow. Blocked blood flow is often the result of atherosclerosis in which fatty material, or plaque, builds up along the walls of the arteries. The reduction in blood flow to the heart contributes to coronary artery disease and can also affect the amount of blood flow to the penis. When atherosclerosis affects blood flow to the penis, there isn't enough blood to fill the penis to allow a firm erection. Because the arteries that supply the penis with blood are smaller than the ones supplying blood to the heart, the first symptom that you may be at risk for heart disease may show up as erectile dysfunction.

There are also a number of risk factors that can contribute to both heart disease and erectile dysfunction, including:

  • Diabetes: Difficulty getting an erection in men who have diabetes is partially due to the diabetes-related damage to blood vessels that supply the penis.
  • Obesity: Men who are overweight are more likely to have heart disease and ED.
  • High Cholesterol: High levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol increases the risk of atherosclerosis in blood vessels, raising the risk of ED.
  • Smoking: Not only does smoking raise your risk of heart disease, but it also makes you nearly twice as likely to develop ED.
  • High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure damages the lining of the arteries, accelerating atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease and ED.

If you have difficulty having or maintaining an erection more than 25 percent of the time, talk to your doctor, it may be the first sign that you have underlying health problems that can lead to heart disease. Your doctor may recommend some simple lifestyle changes to keep you heart healthy or, if your symptoms of heart disease are more serious, you may need further tests and treatment.