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.
Being unable to have or keep an erection adequate for sexual activity is the defining mark of erectile dysfunction. The problem may manifest itself in several ways. If the dysfunction:
Is transient or appearing only occasionally, the problem is not likely to be serious; all men experience problems with erections at some time in their lives.
Develops gradually and persistently, there is probably a physical cause; this is generally the case with chronic impotence.
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.
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.