Recent scientific studies published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice have shown that men’s sexual health is closely related to their overall health.
‘Erectile dysfunction can be a predictor of a future heart attack or diabetes,’ said Professor Ridwan Shabsigh, president of the International Society of Men’s Health, during a recent visit from the United States. ‘This is very valuable information as it is an early warning for something that otherwise has no warning.’
There is a relationship between erectile dysfunction and the metabolic syndrome ‘ a combination of obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol in one person ‘ heart disease, diabetes and common psychiatric conditions such as depression, explained Shabsigh, who is also the director of the division of Urology at Maimonides Medical Centre and Professor of Urology at Cornell University in New York, United States.
It has long been known that erectile dysfunction can be caused by already-existing disease, but what doctors are getting excited about now is that in many cases, it can be a precursor to disease, thereby serving as an early-warning system. ‘It provides doctors with a golden opportunity to improve and prevent,’ said Shabsigh.
That poor sexual health may be a warning for heart disease and diabetes is particularly important in South Africa where heart disease kills 200 people every day, and millions are suffering from diabetes.
Shabsigh explained how erectile dysfunction can serve as an indicator for heart disease: the artery in the penis is half the size of the heart artery, and when clogging of the arteries occur (a sign of developing heart disease), the smaller penile artery will clog before the heart artery because of its smaller size.
‘A middle-aged man that has low sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, low energy and easy fatigue could be at a high risk of developing diabetes,’ said Shabsigh. ‘I know that because those are all symptoms of low testosterone levels, which has been linked to diabetes.’
In fact, with diabetes, the erection is often the ‘thermometer’ of how bad the condition is. Shabsigh explained: ‘You need the integrity of three body systems to produce an erection ‘ good blood vessels to bring the blood into the penis, good nerves to bring signals of sexual stimulation, and good hormones, because testosterone provides the chemistry.
‘Diabetes harms all three! It causes microvascular disease that harms the blood vessels, it damages the nerves (neuropathy), and it also causes testosterone deficiency. How much more damage can you do?’
There is a solution though. Men who present with these symptoms should go to a doctor and have their sugar, cholesterol and testosterone levels checked. These tests (see box) are all easy, fairly painless and inexpensive and effective treatment is available for all these conditions.
The ideal, of course, is for men to address the cause, which usually leads back to poor lifestyle choices. ‘We know that reduction of obesity, better diet, smoking cessation and exercise improves sexual health as well as overall health. So if you are healthy, you are sexy, and if you are sexy, you are healthy ‘ it’s a big incentive,’ said Shabsigh.