Erectile dysfunction may have a number of underlying causes

Erectile dysfunction is estimated to affect around a million Australian men. Behind each of these cases it’s likely there is an underlying cause -- physical, psychological or both -- that’s often not easy to spot.

Amongst this list is heart disease. While research continues to unfold, current evidence suggests erectile dysfunction may be linked to this vital area of health and its long-term risks. Read on to find out more about this topic, as well as the habits that will help keep your heart healthy.

What is erectile dysfunction?

Also known as impotence, erectile dysfunction is when a man is unable to get or maintain an erection sufficient for sexual penetration. It can be a difficult time for the person who may feel uncomfortable talking about it or dealing with the problem. But if the issue persists it’s important to consult a doctor to get to the bottom of it.

In some cases, psychological factors are at play - such as stress, anxiety and depression - however most cases of erectile dysfunction are caused by physical illness and manifest over time, often with a gradual loss of function.

The condition is known to be related to a range of conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. Erectile dysfunction becomes more common as men age, and is increasingly recognised as an early sign of heart disease.

MORE: Can too much stress lead to a bad heart?

Diagnosis and treatment

When it happens on the odd occasion, erectile dysfunction can be quite normal and nothing to worry about, especially if the person is tired, a little anxious or perhaps had too much to drink.

But if someone has been experiencing the issue on a regular basis, it may be a symptom of a serious illness and should be raised with a GP. They can look at a person’s medical and sexual history, test blood flow to the penis and run blood tests to detect any hormonal issues, such as low testosterone, as well as glucose and cholesterol levels. Once a doctor has determined the cause, treating any underlying illness is the first step.

There are a number of treatments to promote a better erection. Among these are oral medications (tablets); changing a prescription medication if it is the cause; psychotherapy and counselling; external pump devices; injections; implants; and in rare cases hormone replacement or surgery. Doctors will usually recommend the least invasive treatments first.

Is it related to heart disease?

While there are several different causes of erectile dysfunction, an issue called atherosclerosis is said to be the most common. This problem arises when a person’s blood vessels are unable to expand properly, thereby restricting blood flow to the heart and other parts of the body.

Atherosclerosis is often exacerbated when a person has high levels of bad cholesterol, which may result in a buildup of plaques on the blood vessel wall. This in turn makes it even harder for blood to flow around the body, and may in very serious cases, stop blood flow altogether resulting in a stroke or heart attack.

Atherosclerosis often affects the penis first, followed by the heart and brain. For this reason, erectile dysfunction can ring the alarm of a much more serious health risk, and should be discussed with your doctor.

MORE: Have you checked your cholesterol lately?

So is the key keeping your heart healthy?

While heart health may indeed be linked to cases of erectile dysfunction, it’s important to remember that heart health is the very foundation of a person’s overall health. Read on for our tips on keeping your heart healthy.

  1. Quit smoking: It’s probably no surprise that being smoke-free is one of the best things you can do for your heart (and your entire wellbeing). If you’re a smoker who’s struggling to quit, find support through Quitline.
  2. Review your diet: For most people, there’s always room to improve when it comes to diet. Eating a wide range of fibrous foods, cutting down on salt and replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats can all help prevent heart disease.
3. **Keep cholesterol in check:** Our bodies need cholesterol, but high cholesterol can be a risk factor for heart attack or stroke. 4. **Get the body moving:** Regular physical activity can be great for heart health. That includes limiting your time sitting down and having frequent breaks from desk work. 5. **Give mind to mental health:** Depression is known to be a risk factor for heart disease, so it’s important to prioritise mental health as much as physical health.

MORE: Keeping your heart healthy

If erectile dysfunction is affecting you or someone you care about, it’s time to get it off the taboo list and onto the to-do list. Seeing a doctor is the first step towards understanding what’s happening, any broader health implications and what can be done to get back on track.