Impotence Could Signal Type 2 Diabetes

Written by Aviva Patz

Heads up, guys. A new study shows that men with erectile dysfunction have double the odds of having undiagnosed diabetes.

The group at highest risk, according to the study, published in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, is middle-aged men 40 to 49 years old. “In this age group, the prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes was 19.1% in those with erectile dysfunction compared to 3.3% in those without,” explains lead study author Sean Skeldon, MD, a resident in urology and family medicine at the University of Toronto in Canada. That’s a jump in odds from 1 in 50 for men without impotence to 1 in 10 in men with impotence.

These findings don’t mean that erectile dysfunction, defined as having trouble achieving or maintaining an erection for sex, causes diabetes. In fact, it’s the other way around. Erectile dysfunction is a known complication of diabetes, with up to half of men with diabetes experiencing some degree of it, Dr. Skeldon says.

It seems to be a problem of both plumbing and wiring. “The mechanism is likely due to damage to both the blood vessels and nerves involved in erectile function,” which can happen with diabetes, Dr. Skeldon explains.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data on more than 4,500 men who participated in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 to 2004. Among men who reported erectile dysfunction, the researchers looked for markers of undiagnosed high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Only diabetes showed a positive association. And the link was strongest among men under 60.

The Symptom That's Hard to Ignore

“What makes erectile dysfunction an important red flag or sentinel marker is that it is symptomatic, meaning that men typically know when they have it,” Skeldon says. “This is unlike other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol, which are usually asymptomatic or silent.”

Having definitive warning signs is especially important for middle age men, Dr. Skeldon says, because this age group is less likely to have a family doctor and to undergo the types of screenings that could flag cardiometabolic risk factors such as diabetes and hyperlipidemia, a fancy word for too much fat in the blood—usually high cholesterol and high triglycerides. But trouble in the sack, they’re pretty likely to notice.

Occasional trouble keeping an erection going isn't necessarily a cause for concern. It’s when it becomes chronic that it could cause stress, sabotage your confidence, interfere with relationships and potentially warn of a more serious health problem.
Aside from diabetes and heart trouble, there are a number of other potential causes of erectile dysfunction—including neurologic diseases, depression, previous surgeries (such as radical prostatectomy for prostate cancer) and some medications.

Dr. Skeldon urges men with impotence issues to get the key screenings for both diabetes and heart disease, which includes tests of blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol. Your heart, and your sex life, will thank you.

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