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.
European scientists caused a stir in 2008 when they published results of a
study -- believed to be the only one of its kind -- purporting to show that
infrequent sex can lead to erectile dysfunction.
But many urologists remain skeptical.
The study, published in the July 2008 issue of the American Journal of
Medicine, tracked 989 men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s for five years. It
showed that men who reported having sexual intercourse less than once a week
were twice as likely to develop ED. The less frequent the sex, the greater the
risk for ED.
“The result indicated that regular sexual activity preserves potency in a
similar fashion as physical exercise maintains functional
capacity,” the scientists concluded.
The study didn’t address the question of whether masturbation helps preserve
male sexual function. But it probably does help, says Juha Koskimaki, MD, PhD,
a urologist at Tampere University Hospital in Tampere, Finland, and one of the
authors of the study.
Both forms of sexual activity seem to protect nerve fibers and blood vessels
responsible for erectile function and prevent scarring of the chambers inside
the penis that fill with blood to
form an erection, Koskimaki says.
Not So Fast
Other urologists tell WebMD that that while infrequent sex is clearly
associated with ED, it’s unclear that it causes ED. And it’s premature to
conclude that frequent sex or masturbation can help men stave off ED, they
“Having sex is good, masturbating is good, but the concept that men have to
go out and have sex to preserve erectile function is bogus,” says Irwin
Goldstein, MD, director of sexual medicine at Alvarado Hospital in San
Ira D. Sharlip, MD, clinical professor of urology at the University of
California at San Francisco School of Medicine and a spokesman for the American
Urological Association, says that infrequent sex is more likely to be a
consequence of ED than a cause.
Among men in the study, those who reported frequent sex might simply have
had “good genes” that protected them from ED, whereas the men who developed ED
might have had sex less frequently simply because they were having erection
trouble, Sharlip tells WebMD in an email.
Erections to the Rescue
Erections seem to be the key, whether or not they're accompanied by sex.
Anecdotal reports and expert opinion in sexual medicine indicate that having
erections -- with or without sex -- helps preserve male sexual function. And of
course, there's no downside to having sex; it certainly won't hurt a man's
chances of avoiding ED.
And with few exceptions, every man has several spontaneous erections each
night while sleeping. So even in the absence of sexual activity, most men have
a measure of built-in protection against erectile dysfunction, just by having
erections at night.
The bottom line? Given the many benefits of sexual activity, and the
possibility that the Finns are right about sex helping to prevent ED,
urologists say there’s every reason to stay in the game.