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.
The new study aims to gain more insight into how the severity of erectile dysfunction translates into a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers tracked more than 95,000 men aged 45 and up, and compared data collected between 2006 and 2009 to data collected in 2010.
The researchers adjusted their statistics so they wouldn't be thrown off by factors like high or low numbers of men who smoked or drank alcohol, or were wealthy or poor. They found that the men with severe erectile dysfunction, compared to those with no problem, were eight times more likely to have heart failure, 60 percent more likely to have heart disease and almost twice as likely to die of any cause.
What does this mean in the big picture?
"Heart problems are very common, so even a relatively moderate increase in risk translates into quite a number of affected individuals," Banks said. "Among men with no past history of cardiovascular disease, an estimated six per 1,000 men per year who did not have erectile dysfunction went on to be admitted to the hospital for coronary heart disease. This compares with eight per 1,000 men per year with moderate erectile dysfunction and nine per 1,000 men per year among those with severe erectile dysfunction."
Also, she said, "among men with a past history of cardiovascular disease, an estimated 20 per 1,000 men per year of those without erectile dysfunction went on to be admitted to the hospital for coronary artery disease. This compares with 28 per 1,000 men per year with moderate erectile dysfunction and 34 per 1,000 men per year with severe erectile dysfunction."
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