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Erectile dysfunction: A sign of impending heart attack?

Erectile dysfunction and cardiovascular disease are two common – and seemingly unrelated – health issues, but studies show there is a clear link between the two conditions. “Erections are generated by blood flow,” says Nikhil Shah, D.O., a urologist at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “There is some nerve interaction, but it is predominately a blood flow related issue.”

Cardiovascular disease and erectile dysfunction

Research has found that when a man presents with severe erectile dysfunction, it could be a marker for increased risk of stroke, heart attack or even death within three to five years of the erectile dysfunction diagnosis. “Any gentleman who presents with a heart condition has probably already experienced hardening of the arteries and smaller vessels,” says Dr. Shah. “We tend to think that anyone with heart disease probably has some component of erectile dysfunction.”

The hardening of the arteries is a normal part of the aging process, especially when combined with an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. Erectile dysfunction can be a primary symptom of cardiovascular disease, meaning it may be one of the first signs of trouble. “Somebody who doesn’t have any other problems, but notices he is having a hard time either getting or maintaining an erection, that may be the first sign that he needs a heart checkup,” says Dr. Shah.

How the urologist and cardiologist work together

The partnership between the urologist and cardiologist is crucial. “If a man has moderate to severe erectile dysfunction, we can do temporizing therapies to help him have successful intercourse, but ultimately, he’s going to need a bigger intervention,” explains Dr. Shah.

At that point, Dr. Shah refers his patients to a cardiologist. Forty to 60 percent of the time, those men need some sort of heart intervention. Dr. Shah says many men expect heart attack symptoms to be obvious, but warning signs can occur years before a heart attack actually happens. He says his job, in partnership with cardiologists, is to prevent men from getting to the point of having lifelong heart problems.

Crucial interventions

While the two conditions have a link, there is silver lining: seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction can mean heart problems are caught years before a cardiac event occurs. “The key here is intervening,” says Dr. Shah. “The signs of erectile dysfunction could mean an impending heart attack in three to five years. If we get those men to a cardiologist sooner rather than later, they can live a really long, normal, healthy life.”

For more information, visit Piedmont Physicians Urology Specialists or Piedmont Heart Institute.

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