Why Erectile Dysfunction Can Signal Problems with Your Heart

Erection problems often caused by heart disease
older man upset in bed with wife

There are several reasons why men can’t achieve an erection. When a man is older than 40, heart disease or one of its risk factors often is to blame.

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The good news is that certain lifestyle changes can restore normal sexual function, while lowering the risk of heart attack.

“Erectile dysfunction can be frightening and embarrassing, but it’s not necessarily a permanent condition,” says urologist Drogo K. Montague, MD. 

A warning sign

The heart and penis have a common link in atherosclerosis, a disease that causes fat to build up in the body’s arteries.

Fatty plaques narrow the inside diameter of an artery, which slows blood flow. Plaques in coronary arteries can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. Plaques in the penile arteries can cause erectile dysfunction (ED).

Because these plaques grow slowly, symptoms may appear gradually over time. For a man, this may mean sometimes having ED, sometimes not. Or maybe noticing that an erection takes a little longer to achieve and is more difficult to sustain.

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That’s a warning sign, Dr. Montague says.  As soon as a man begins experiencing ED, he should see his primary care physician.

Job No. 1: Assess your heart health

The first order of business is to look for risk factors for heart disease. Results of basic, noninvasive tests can determine what medications and lifestyle changes may be needed. These may include quitting smoking, eating a low-fat diet, increasing physical activity and bringing blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels under control.

“These lifestyle changes will lower the risk of heart attack,” Dr. Montague says. “They may not be sufficient to restore potency, but they are likely to increase the chance that ED medications will work.”

Up to 75 percent of men are able to achieve an erection with one of the common ED medications (sold under the brand name Viagra), (sold under the brand name Cialis) or vardenafil (sold under the brand name Levitra).

These medicines won’t work in men with advanced atherosclerosis, however—which is why it’s important to see a doctor at the first sign of ED.

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How to reap the benefits

Have you heard that TV commercial that says, “What if one sit-up could prevent heart disease?”  Unfortunately, it can’t.  There’s no easy fix for either heart disease or ED.

If you are motivated to have a healthy sex life, adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle is the answer. This means not smoking, maintaining a normal weight, getting regular exercise and following a heart-healthy diet.

“Men who take steps to control their risk factors for cardiovascular disease should be able to maintain their sexual function well into their 80s and 90s,” Dr. Montague says.

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