Erectile Dysfunction and Atherosclerosis

Erectile Dysfunction and Atherosclerosis

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Diabetes is a risk factor for atherosclerosis and ED.

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Erectile dysfunction is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfactory sexual performance. Approximately one-third of males experience ED at some point, making it the most common sexual problem in men. Several factors -- both physical and psychological -- can trigger or contribute to ED. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a significant risk factor for ED. Conversely, ED could be an early sign of atherosclerosis, according to the authors of a study published in the January 2013 issue of "PLoS Medicine."

Complex Mechanism

A series of events must occur in sequence to achieve an erection. Sexual arousal triggers specific centers within your brain. Impulses arising from these centers travel through your body via your nervous system. These impulses stimulate production of nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates the arteries leading into the spongy tissues of your penis. The veins draining blood from these tissues constrict at nearly the same time, shutting off outward blood flow from your penis. With more blood entering your penis than leaving, you get an erection. Healthy blood vessels are an essential part of this process.

Reduced Blood Flow

Atherosclerosis describes the gradual buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances on the inner walls of your arteries. This condition interferes with erections by reducing blood flow through the arteries that supply your penis. Several studies, including one published in the June 2011 issue of "BMC Cardiovascular Disorders," link atherosclerosis to narrowing and loss of elasticity of the arteries that supply the penis. Other research studies demonstrate that atherosclerosis damages the delicate lining of your arteries, where nitric oxide is produced. The combination of these factors -- narrowed, less elastic arteries and the arteries not fully dilating due to low nitric oxide levels -- commonly lead to ED.

Risk Factors

The same factors that increase your risk for heart disease also heighten your risk for ED. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, too little exercise, smoking, obesity, advanced age and diabetes have all been linked to ED, primarily because they contribute to atherosclerosis. Just as importantly, men with ED may be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease. Because the arteries in your penis are narrower than arteries elsewhere in your body, ED could be an early sign of atherosclerosis. Many researchers believe that ED should be used as a "marker" for cardiovascular disease. If you have ED, talk with your doctor about your risk for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.

Approach to Management

If your doctor determines your ED is due to atherosclerosis, he may recommend treatments and lifestyle changes to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. For example, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, your doctor may prescribe medications. You will probably be urged to make lifestyle changes, too. Weight loss, following a healthy diet, quitting smoking and exercising more may be part of your treatment plan.

Regular exercise could be particularly useful if you have or are at risk for ED due to atherosclerosis. In addition to establishing an association between atherosclerosis and ED, the study in "BMC Cardiovascular Disorders" showed that men who burned more than 400 calories daily exercising were about 8 times less likely to suffer from ED than their sedentary counterparts.

Your doctor may prescribe medication, such as sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra) or tadalifil (Cialis), to address your ED. By dilating the arteries to your penis, these drugs enhance blood flow and improve the quality of an erection. If you have ED, talk with health care provider to determine the best course of treatment.