U researcher finds erectile dysfunction might be a sign of serious health risks

Naomi Scott

A recent study by a University professor published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine explores why erectile dysfunction might be one of the earliest signs of larger cardiovascular health problems.

Erectile dysfunction is “the persistent inability to achieve or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfactual sexual intercourse, which persists for three months or more,” said Kevin L. Billups, author of the study and a professor of lab medicine and pathology.

Billups, who is also a urologist at the EpiCenter for Sexual Health and Medicine in Minneapolis, said he wants to make asking about erectile dysfunction part of routine clinic visits for men 25 and older. He said difficulty maintaining an erection can be a sign of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

“A list of cardiovascular risk factors is identical to the risk factors for erectile dysfunction,” he said.

Billups said one of the main reasons the disorder can be an indicator of overall health is that the arteries that travel to the penis are smaller than those that travel to the heart or brain. If cardiovascular problems occur, the smaller arteries will be blocked off sooner.

Another reason for the link is that the tissue of the penis is very sensitive to changes in overall cardiovascular health, so erectile dysfunction can manifest itself early on, he said.

“A man knows when he’s having problems with his erections,” he said.

Although the condition affects approximately 30 million men in the United States, he said, many do not seek treatment.

“Men put off health-care decisions, anyway,” Billups said.

Jon Pryor, professor and department head of urologic surgery, said only 10 percent of men with the dysfunction get treatment.

Pryor said some health insurances do not cover treatment for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra and Levitra.

But starting Jan. 1, 2006, Medicare’s new prescription drug program will cover sexual-performance drugs.

Pryor also said men might ignore symptoms of erectile dysfunction because of habit as they get older.

“After a while, if you haven’t had sex, it loses its importance to you,” he said.

Pryor said word has gotten out about erectile dysfunction treatment through commercials for drugs such as Viagra and through comedy routines on late-night talk shows.

“I think the stigma is absolutely decreasing,” he said.

Commercials during Sunday’s Super Bowl featured ads for erectile dysfunction pills. Levitra got airtime when it sponsored the NFL play of the year.

But Billups said he thinks the ads perpetuate the “false myth” that erectile dysfunction only affects quality of life.

“I think all of these ads fail to get the message out that erectile dysfunction can be a sign of something else,” he said.

Ogechika Alozie, a master’s student in the School of Public Health and a Boynton Health Service international health advocate, said erectile dysfunction is “generally not a concern” when students come to him with health questions.

Alozie said the condition is not something college-aged men typically have to deal with. He said he was not aware doctors, such as Billups, recommend that health-care professionals ask men about their erection problems at an earlier age.

Alozie said many of the international students he counsels come from patriarchal societies in which a man’s “sexual prowess” means power. Therefore, talking about sexual problems would be taboo and shameful.

Also, he said, people in other countries don’t talk about sex as openly as Americans do.