The role of the endothelium in ED has been noted for a number of years and the overlapping of ED and other conditions, especially coronary heart disease, CVD, affecting endothelial function/dysfunction, is clearly present. The endothelial cell is now known to affect vascular tone and impact the process of atherosclerosis, and impacting ED, CVD and peripheral vascular disease.16
The 1985 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey indicated that there were about 525,000 visits for erectile dysfunction, accounting for 0.2 percent of all male ambulatory care visits. Estimates of visits per 1,000 population increased from about 1.5 for the age group 25-34 to 15.0 for those age 65 and above. The 1985 National Hospital Discharge Survey estimated that more than 30,000 hospital admissions were for erectile dysfunction.
The circulatory system plays a central role in obtaining and sustaining erections. Augmentation of blood flow to the corporal bodies depends on the intravascular pressure in the penile artery. Vascular lesions—typically atherosclerotic, but occasionally fibrotic—and systemic hypotension will limit flow to the corpora. In certain patients, blood flow at rest may be sufficient to obtain an erection but not sufficient to maintain it during intercourse, when the pelvic musculature places greater demands on a compromised blood supply.
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As blood flows into the penis, the corpora cavernosa swell, and this swelling compresses the veins (blood vessels that drain the blood out of the penis) against the tunica albuginea. Compression of the veins prevents blood from leaving the penis. This creates a hard erection. When the amount of cGMP decreases by the action of a chemical called phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), the muscles in the penis tighten, and the blood flow into the penis decreases. With less blood coming into the penis, the veins are not compressed, allowing blood to drain out of the penis, and the erection goes down.
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Medical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety, also contribute to sexual dysfunction in middle-aged or elderly men. CVD and hypertension cause a narrowing and hardening of the arteries, leading to reduced blood flow to the corporal bodies, which is essential for achieving an erection. Diabetes is a common aetiology of sexual dysfunction, because it can affect both the blood vessels and the nerves that supply the penis. Men with diabetes are four times more likely to experience ED, and on average, experience ED 15 years earlier than men without diabetes.7 Obesity is also correlated to the development of several types of dysfunction, including a decrease in sex drive and an increase in episodes of ED.8
Normal erectile function depends on the release of NO and endothelial-dependent vasodilation of the penile arteries. The ‘artery size’ hypothesis, first described by Dr Montorsi, offers an explanation why men are more likely to develop ED before a myocardial infacrtion. It is believed that atherosclerosis affects all vascular beds equally but smaller arteries are more likely to become occluded than larger arteries.31 32 The penile arteries are 1–2 mm while the coronary arteries are 3–4 mm. Thus, the same degree of endothelial dysfunction and atherosclerosis is more likely to occlude blood flow in the penile arteries compared with the coronary arteries. The penile arteries therefore serve as a sensitive indicator for subsequent CVD. This theory is supported by the fact that ED occurs approximately 3 years prior to cardiac symptoms in virtually all patients with chronic coronary syndrome whereas patients with acute coronary syndrome have a much lower prevalence of sexual dysfunction.32
It is essential to discuss erectile dysfunction with your doctor, so any serious underlying causes can be excluded and treatment options can be discussed. Many men are embarrassed discussing this issue with their doctor, or even their partner. Open communication with your doctor, and in your relationship, is important for effectively managing this common problem.
Did you know that erectile dysfunction precedes coronary artery disease in almost 70 percent of cases.2 The arteries in the penis are smaller than those that cause heart disease symptoms, which means they are likely to be affected by blockages sooner. When the arteries in the penis are blocked, keeping an erection will be difficult regardless of your level of arousal.
For example, many men with diabetes mellitus may develop erectile dysfunction during their young and middle adult years. Physicians, diabetes educators, and patients and their families are sometimes unaware of this potential complication. Whatever the causal factors, discomfort of patients and health care providers in discussing sexual issues becomes a barrier to pursuing treatment.
The role of the endothelium in erectile function became clearer with the observation that the phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5) inhibitor, sildenafil, enhanced erectile function. Erection occurs with the release of nitric oxide (NO) from the vascular endothelial cells.17 The reduction in endothelial cell production of NO results in the negative impact on the smooth muscles in the corporal bodies and results in less relaxation of the smooth muscle cells with decrease in blood supply and resulting ED. A similar phenomenon is well known to impact the coronary arterial system resulting in CVD.
The link between chronic disease and ED is most striking for diabetes. Men who have diabetes are two to three times more likely to have erectile dysfunction than men who do not have diabetes. Among men with erectile dysfunction, those with diabetes may experience the problem as much as 10 to 15 years earlier than men without diabetes. Yet evidence shows that good blood sugar control can minimize this risk. Other conditions that may cause ED include cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), kidney disease, and multiple sclerosis. These illnesses can impair blood flow or nerve impulses throughout the body.