Erectile dysfunction (ED) commonly occurs in the same stage of a man’s life as cardiovascular disease (CVD). Though the two might actually have been occurring at the same time, symptoms of ED commonly precede symptoms of CVD; so many men with ED are unaware they are suffering from CVD as well. What could be the connection between these seemingly unrelated conditions?.
The mechanics of an erection
When a man experiences an erection, there is a significant increase in blood flow to the penis, where it becomes trapped for the duration of sexual activity. When sexual activity is done, the blood drains away and is re-circulated into the body. If anything obstructs, or impedes, the flow of that blood to the penis, it becomes difficult, and in some cases impossible, to achieve an erection. Very often the cause of this obstruction of blood is a medical condition known as atherosclerosis, or formation of cholesterol plaques in the lining of arteries. This is the same problem that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and other vascular conditions.
Impact of atherosclerosis
As atherosclerosis gains a foothold, a substance called “plaque” builds up inside the walls of the arteries, narrowing the inside of the blood vessel and restricting the flow of blood. Depending on which arteries are affected, this manifests in different ways. For instance, in an artery of the brain, it could show up as a stroke. If the coronary arteries (in the heart) are affected, a heart attack might well be the result.
This can happen in the penis as well. When the arteries that supply the penis become clogged with plaque, it becomes impossible to supply the high amount of blood flow required for an erection. This in turn, may prevent the ability to achieve an erection, or it may show up as an inability to sustain an erection for the desired amount of time.
Connection between ED and CVD
A recent report by the Harvard Medical School makes it clear that erections can be a significant indicator of overall health, and that blood vessel problems are the leading cause of erectile dysfunction in men. This means that ED is often an early warning sign of trouble in the heart or somewhere else in the body. The best way to prevent ED is through natural lifestyle changes such as the elimination of smoking, a significant increase in daily exercise routines, and shedding excess pounds. When these natural methods are not enough to prevent ED, there are many treatments available which can provide a patient with normal erections.
The link between ED and CVD is impairment of blood flow through atherosclerosis, which can be a consequence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, and obesity. It is clear that while not all men who have ED also have CVD, the medical factors that lead to erectile dysfunction can also cause cardiovascular disease. Thus, a comprehensive approach to men’s health is imperative, one that not only addresses erectile dysfunction, but also all other associated conditions as well.
Dr. Alan Scott Polackwich
Columbia University Division of Urology