Cardiovascular Implications of Erectile Dysfunction
Sexual problems might mean you have a broken heart, literally. The most common sexual problem in men is erectile dysfunction (ED). ED affects up to 30 million men in the United States. Surprisingly, ED might be a sign of heart problems. It is important to discuss sexual health with your doctor. Not only can your doctor prescribe medications to improve sexual function, but together you may be able to prevent a major heart problem like a heart attack. This article outlines the steps that you should take if you think you have ED.
What Is Erectile Dysfunction?
Erectile dysfunction means that a man is not able to have sex because he cannot get or keep an erection. Erectile dysfunction affects >30% of men between 40 and 70 years of age. There are several different causes of ED, including depression, low testosterone, nerve problems, and some medications, but the most common cause is a problem with the blood vessels called atherosclerosis.
What Is Atherosclerosis?
With atherosclerosis, the blood vessels are not able to dilate properly, which is called endothelial dysfunction (see the Figure). Cholesterol builds up in the blood vessel walls and forms plaques, which make the vessels narrow and slow down blood flow. When a plaque becomes very advanced, it can completely stop blood from passing through, which is what happens in a heart attack. Atherosclerosis affects not only the blood vessels supplying the heart (coronary arteries), but also blood vessels throughout the entire body. Atherosclerosis causes angina (chest pain that is often exertional), heart attacks, strokes, claudication (pain in the legs with walking), and ED. Atherosclerosis affects different people in different places, but it often affects the penis first, then the heart and brain, and the legs last. Because the first stage of atherosclerosis, endothelial dysfunction, usually affects the penis first, ED can be a warning sign that a heart attack or a stroke may follow, often in the next 3 to 5 years. This warning sign can be a good thing if it alerts you and your doctor that you have atherosclerosis, because then you can take steps to treat the atherosclerosis and prevent a heart attack or stroke.
What Do You Do If You Think You Have Erectile Dysfunction?
Talk with your doctor about your sexual health. Do not be shy or embarrassed. Your doctor has probably dealt with this issue before. If your doctor is an older man, he might even have ED. First, your doctor will figure out what is causing your ED, which can usually be done just by talking with you. Next, your doctor will look for risk factors for atherosclerosis (the Table) by asking you questions, checking your blood pressure, and performing a few blood tests. Identifying and successfully treating atherosclerotic risk factors can reduce the chance of developing major vascular events (heart attacks and strokes).
How Do I Prevent a Heart Attack?
Treatments might be slightly different for different people, depending on their risk factors, but in general all treatment plans have similar elements: diet, exercise, and medications, if necessary (see the Table). Diet and exercise are the cornerstones of the treatment of atherosclerosis. Every diet should include low salt (especially for high blood pressure), low fat and cholesterol (especially for high cholesterol), and limited total calories (especially for patients who are overweight). People with diabetes mellitus should limit their intake of sugars and carbohydrates. Exercise helps to limit atherosclerosis. The more exercise, the better, but every little bit helps. The general recommendation is 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. Check with your doctor to be sure that an exercise program is safe for you. Cigarettes cause a variety of health problems, including atherosclerosis, so cigarette smoking should be stopped. If diet and exercise are not enough to control your atherosclerotic risk factors, then your doctor will prescribe medications. Heart attacks are prevented by controlling atherosclerotic risk factors, which means diet, exercise, and medications if necessary.
If you have several atherosclerotic risk factors or symptoms of heart disease, your doctor might do additional tests to look for atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries. A stress test involves monitoring the heart with an electrocardiogram or images before and after exercise. An angiogram, or cardiac catheterization, involves entering a blood vessel in the leg or wrist to pass instruments into the heart to directly visualize the coronary arteries. During this procedure, atherosclerosis can be treated by inflating a balloon or placing a metal stent in the coronary blood vessel to keep it open. If you and your doctor begin a treatment plan to prevent atherosclerosis at the first sign of ED, then you may significantly delay or prevent the need for these more invasive procedures.
How Do I Treat Erectile Dysfunction?
After getting a diagnosis of ED, most patients can begin treatment right away, but treatment may be delayed for some patients until the health of the heart is more fully assessed or improved. The most common treatment for ED is a pill (phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitor; PDE5-I): Viagra (sildenafil), Cialis (tadalafil), or Levitra (vardenafil). Each of these pills improves erections when taken before sexual activity; alternatively, a low dose of Cialis can be taken once a day. These medicines work by allowing the blood vessels that supply blood to the penis to dilate better during sexual stimulation. The PDE5-Is decrease blood pressure a little bit, but they are safe with most other medications and with other blood pressure pills. The PDE5-Is are not safe with nitrate medications like nitroglycerin, Nitrostat, Nitro Paste, Imdur, isosorbide mononitrate, and Isordil. Mixing a PDE5-I with a nitrate medication could result in severely low blood pressure and even death. Inform all medical professionals (including the ambulance or emergency department) about your most recent ED pill ingestion so that nitrates can be avoided. If you have high blood pressure or benign prostatic hypertrophy (enlarged prostate) and take medicines called α-blockers, your doctor may need to start you on the lowest dose of the PDE5-I.
Erectile dysfunction is very common as men age. Erectile dysfunction is frequently a sign of atherosclerosis, a clogging or narrowing of the blood vessels that causes heart attacks. Erectile dysfunction usually comes 3 to 5 years before a heart attack, so after ED is diagnosed, there is time to treat atherosclerosis and prevent a heart attack. Treating atherosclerosis involves diet, exercise, and medications, if necessary. Talk with your doctor about a broken sex life, and you might be able to prevent a broken heart.
For more information on preventing heart disease, diet, weight loss, exercise, quitting smoking, and ED, see the following:
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/ and click “GETTING HEALTHY” in top left corner to access this page, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/GettingHealthy_UCM_001078_SubHomePage.jsp: information on diet, weight loss, exercise, and quitting smoking
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/index.htm: information on preventing heart disease and atherosclerosis
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/phy_active_brief.pdf: information on physical activity
http://nhlbisupport.com/chd1/tlc_lifestyles.htm: diet to lower cholesterol
http://www.nutrition.gov: information on nutrition
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/QuitSmoking/QuitSmoking_UCM_001085_SubHomePage.jsp: information on quitting smoking
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/erectile-dysfunction/DS00162: information on ED
- © 2011 American Heart Association, Inc.