March 2020

The Below-the-Belt Warning Sign Men Shouldn’t Ignore

Men often hesitate to pull back the sheets on their sex lives in the doctor’s office. 

But baring all serves an important purpose, at least if they’re having trouble performing sexually. Erectile dysfunction (ED) may be an early warning sign of heart problems. 

In a new analysis, experts crunched the numbers from 25 studies involving more than 150,000 men. They found that men with ED—who can’t get or keep an erection sufficient for intercourse—have:

  • A 43% greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease

  • A 59% higher risk for coronary heart disease

They’re also 34% more likely to have a stroke. And they have one-third greater odds of dying early.           

Low flow leads to health problems

What’s the link between ED and heart disease? The two conditions have many common risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels.

One shared factor is a disease called atherosclerosis. In this condition, plaque made of fat, cholesterol, and similar substances builds up in the arteries.

When plaque clogs the arteries to the heart, you have coronary heart disease. Over time, blocked blood flow can cause a heart attack. And if plaque builds up in the carotid arteries in the neck—called carotid artery disease—blood flow to the brain could be blocked. This can lead to stroke.

Plaque can also obstruct blood vessels in the penis, which fill up during an erection. Because those vessels are smaller than those to the heart or brain, you may notice ED before you develop other symptoms of plaque buildup.

Protect your sex life—and your heart

Many men have ED. About 30 million in the U.S. alone cope with it. But don’t consider it normal.

If you or your partner have ED, talk with a healthcare provider. Treatment can help improve sexual function. And it gives you a chance to make changes to your life to protect your heart. These include:

  • Quitting smoking and cutting back on alcohol

  • Working with your provider to control blood pressure and blood sugar

  • Exercising regularly

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Your healthcare provider may also recommend more frequent screenings for heart problems.



Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2020
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