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Erectile Dysfunction as Warning Sign

Impotence isn't a deadly disease, but it can signal other deadly health problems.
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WebMD Feature

Impotence, while not to be taken lightly, isn't a life-threatening condition on its own. Men don't actually need sex to stay alive (no matter what they may tell their wives). But impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction, can in fact portend some deadly health problems. 

Dependable erections are not necessarily a sure sign of excellent health, but a penis that won't rise to the occasion is a warning that something may be awry.

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In treating men with erectile dysfunction, doctors worry most about heart disease. "Any form of cardiovascular disease is more likely to occur in men who have erectile dysfunction," says Ira Sharlip, MD, a urologist in San Francisco and past president of the Sexual Medicine Society of North America.

Erections depend on healthy blood flow to the penis. During an erection, vessels in the penis become engorged with blood to produce an erection. Many diseases that affect the blood vessels can interfere with blood flow to the penis. Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure (hypertension) can cause abnormal blood flow to the penis and can affect a man's ability to have an erection.

That's not to say that everyone with heart disease is impotent, or vice versa. "It's not a simple relationship between the two conditions by any means," says Ira Nash, MD, spokesman for the American Heart Association and associate professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"There are certain cardiovascular drugs that have the potential to induce impotence," he says. For example, medications used to treat high blood pressure can also cause erectile dysfunction. So can other medications, such as those used to treat depression.

All things considered, doctors treating men with erectile dysfunction must always keep in mind that heart disease may be lurking in the background. "I always arrange for them to see a primary care physician or an internist for a cardiac evaluation," Sharlip says.

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