What Viagra's Birthday Means to Men's Health

Erectile dysfunction can be a sign that a man's life is at risk.

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I had the dubious distinction last year of being mocked (in absentia) on national TV by Jay Leno, who for some unimaginable reason found it amusing that a guy named Harder had written a news story about flaccidity.

Headline jokes aside, erectile dysfunction is a serious matter, and not just because it can threaten the health of a marriage. More than just a sexual problem, ED is often a sign that a man's life is at risk. That was the point of my report last year, and the evidence behind it has only grown stronger. On this day, the tenth anniversary of Viagra's regulatory approval by the Food and Drug Administration, I decided to look anew at that evidence. (If you're more interested in the drug itself than in the condition it treats, check out these five things about the blue pill that you might not know.)

  • Thirty million men in the United States have erectile dysfunction, according to an estimate reported this month, and the number is expected to double by 2025.
    • Erectile dysfunction often appears in combination with other chronic health conditions. About half of men with diabetes and about half of those with heart disease also have ED, UCLA urologist Christopher Saigal and his colleagues reported in 2006. More than a third of men with high blood pressure have ED, they found.
      • Researchers have also found that men with ED often have diabetes, heart disease, and other medical problems. A large study published last year found that 20 percent of men with ED had diabetes compared with 7.5 percent of the men who didn't have ED. In many cases, those ailments haven't yet been diagnosed when the man seeks out Viagra or another treatment for his sexual problem.
        • Some doctors say they're now testing men who complain of ED to see if they need treatment for undiagnosed diabetes or heart disease. An erectile problem may be a "sentinel sign" of undiagnosed cardiovascular disease, according to researchers such as Allen D. Seftel, a urologist at Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
          • Physical activity may stave off—or even reverse—erectile problems. An Austrian study published this month found that men who burn at least 3,000 kilocalories (aka calories) per week through physical activity were 82.9 percent less likely to have erectile dysfunction than men who perform less than 3,000 calories' worth of activity per week. In an earlier trial lasting two years, men were more likely to recover erectile function if they adopted lifestyle changes that increased their physical activity and led them to lose weight.
          • I'm interested in hearing comments—anonymous is fine—from men who have erectile dysfunction. When you sought medical attention for the condition, did your doctor investigate whether you had heart disease, diabetes, or another similar condition?