Erectile Dysfunction Is Found to Be a Strong Indicator of Heart Disease

New research confirms a link, as experts urge men with even mild ED to get their hearts checked

By Gary Drevitch
Originally Posted On May 18, 2013

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Gary Drevitch is senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels. Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryDrevitch.

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Men who experience even mild erectile dysfunction — almost 2 in 5 over the age of 40 — are at higher risk for heart disease and early death, according to new findings from a major ongoing study of men's health in Australia.

The new research confirms previous findings of an apparent link between ED and heart trouble, but it's the first report to express serious concern for men with only mild ED symptoms.

A team of researchers studying the hospital and death records of 95,000 men in its "45 and Up" project, one of the world's largest longitudinal studies of aging and health, found that men with only mild episodes of ED had a significantly higher risk of heart attack, heart failure and related cardiovascular conditions, even if they'd had no previous cardiovascular concerns. And the risk increased with the severity of a man's ED problems. Those with the most severe cases were 60 percent more likely than others to be hospitalized for heart disease and twice as likely to die over a two- to three-year period. Men with severe ED who had no history of heart trouble were still 35 percent more likely to develop a heart condition than others.

The connection between ED and heart disease remained strong even when other risk factors were accounted for, including smoking, alcohol consumption, age, weight, diabetes and prescription medication use.

The research does not speculate that ED causes heart disease; it almost certainly doesn't. But the two conditions both involve circulation problems and, given the connection found in 45 and Up and other recent studies, experts more widely view erectile dysfunction as a significant red flag.

"Why erectile dysfunction can serve as an early marker of silent cardiovascular risk — it has been termed 'the canary in the trousers' — is not known exactly," said Emily Banks of Australian National University, the scientific director of the 45 and Up project. "Possibilities include the fact that the arteries of the penis are smaller and more sensitive to problems with the lining of the blood vessels than those of the heart, brain and limbs, so they may show problems before a man experiences symptoms of overt cardiovascular disease."

Experts responding to the new findings say that men with ED should not just stock up on Viagra, but should also go to their doctors for a heart checkup. "Every man who is suffering from any degree of erectile dysfunction should be seeking medical assistance as early as possible and also insisting on a heart health check at the same time," Rob Grenfell, director of Australia’s Heart Foundation, said in a statement.

Banks agrees. "Since a large proportion of heart failure is undiagnosed, particularly at its early stages," she wrote in her study, "erectile dysfunction may serve as an early marker that subsequently manifests itself and necessitates treatment in hospital."

With so many effective treatments for both ED and cardiovascular disease, Banks said, "Men shouldn't suffer in silence."