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What does the function of your penis tell you about your cardiovascular health?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

More than you might think.

But first, as a bit of a background, I should point out that the focus of my PhD project is on the effects of exercise on erectile dysfunction in abdominally obese and sedentary men – the significance of which I will describe in a later post. Accordingly, I have been doing much reading about the condition while writing the grant for my study which was thankfully funded and is now underway.

More that anything else I have previously done research on, the topic of erectile dysfunction catches many peoples’ attention, and for the first time since starting grad school – some non-academics are actually interested to hear about my work. Thus, I thought I would introduce our readers to this interesting area of research, as I will undoubtedly be writing on the topic in future posts.

Erectile dysfunction is defined as the persistent inability to attain or maintain an erection for sexual intercourse. Current estimates suggest that affects approximately 30 million men in the US and 152 million men worldwide have some form of erectile dysfunction – an estimate that is projected to double by 2025

Although erectile dysfunction can have a detrimental impact on many facets of health, particularly on quality of life, its association with cardiovascular disease is quite relevant.
Specifically, erectile dysfunction is primarily a disease of the vasculature supplying blood to the penis. However, in most cases, this vascular disease is not isolated only to the penis, but involves all other vascular beds throughout the body.

The interesting thing about erectile dysfunction is that is appears to foreshadow future cardiovascular disease risk (i.e. heart attack), as men who seek medical attention for cardiovascular disease symptoms often report that their penis stopped working long before they had any signs of heart problems. Thus, it is now believed that the exact same disease process which leads to erectile dysfunction also leads to cardiovascular disease. Symptoms of erectile dysfunction become apparent earlier on in the disease process due to the very small size of the arteries supplying the penis in contrast to those supplying the heart – it takes longer to plug up a water hose than a drinking straw.

Current treatment of erectile dysfunction involves the use of a class of drugs called PDE-5 inhibitors, including the well known Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. Not only are these drugs not effective in about half of men with erectile dysfunction, but they only temporarily improve the symptoms meanwhile the vascular disease throughout the body is allowed to progress. There has even been some fear that sexual intercourse facilitated through the use of these medications may actually give some men a heart attack – given that they are at greater risk of one and that sexual activity may be the most intense exercise they had done in some time (sort of like the heart attacks that always occur after the first big snow fall in Canada).

So there you have it: if your penis stops working today, there is an excellent chance you may have greater problems on the horizon. Thus, seek the advice of your physician, and ask for more than just a prescription for Viagra.


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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