TUESDAY, Jan. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors should look more closely at the overall health of impotent men, a large new study suggests.
Men with even mild erectile dysfunction -- but no known heart problems -- face a major extra risk of developing cardiovascular conditions in the future. And as erectile dysfunction becomes more pronounced, signs of hidden heart disease and earlier death risk grow.
Not surprisingly, men already known to have a heart condition along with severe erectile dysfunction fare worst of all, the Australian researchers found.
Among men aged 45 and up without diagnosed heart disease, those with moderate or severe erectile dysfunction were up to 50 percent more likely to be hospitalized for heart problems, according to an adjusted analysis. Erectile dysfunction boosted the risk for hospitalization even more when men had a history of cardiovascular disease.
Erectile problems, which become more likely as men grow older, aren't a guarantee of heart problems. Still, men with erectile dysfunction should "take action by seeing a health professional and asking for a heart check," said study lead author Dr. Emily Banks. "Men with erectile dysfunction need to be assessed for their future risk of cardiovascular disease, and any identified risk must be managed appropriately."
Banks is a professor of epidemiology at the Australian National University's National Center for Epidemiology and Population Health.
Banks said an estimated 60 percent of men aged 70 and up suffer from moderate to severe erectile dysfunction. The condition can place major limits on sexual activity and require the use of drugs like Viagra that can come with side effects and awkward challenges when it comes to the timing of doses.
A variety of causes can contribute to impotence, but "it is widely acknowledged that erectile dysfunction is predominantly the result of underlying cardiovascular disease," Banks said.
Doctors already believe that erectile dysfunction is an early warning sign of heart problems, but it's not clear why. It's possible, Banks said, that the arteries of the penis are smaller than those of other parts of the body and may be more likely to reveal problems when their lining deteriorates.