But another study out today suggests heart-healthy lifestyle changes or cholesterol-lowering drugs could have a positive effect on men's sexual health.
Scientists have known about the link between erectile dysfunction and heart health for years. Although unproven, a common theory is that arteries supplying the penis with blood during erections may become clogged earlier than those in the heart, thus providing an early warning of possible coronary artery disease.
To investigate the connection between the two, Jia-Yi Dong of Soochow University in Suzhou, China, and colleagues pooled data from 12 studies of impotence and heart disease involving nearly 37,000 men.
They found that men with erectile problems had a 48% increase in their risk of developing heart disease. Those men also had higher mortality rates than men who didn't have sexual problems.
Traditional risk factors such as smoking, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure didn't explain the link, the Chinese team reports in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
That strengthens the case that impotence, when it isn't due to partnership problems or other psychological issues, is a risk factor for heart disease in its own right.
Lifestyle changes improve problems
In the other study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a review of earlier work found that both lifestyle changes and statins appeared to improve men's erectile problems – although only a little.
Men who exercised more or were put on a Mediterranean diet rich in whole grain, fruits, vegetables, nuts and olive oil, for instance, reported a 2.4-point improvement on a 25-point scale of erectile problems.
Those taking statins saw a similar improvement of 3.1 points, according to Dr Bhanu Gupta and colleagues of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The results are based on six trials with 740 participants.
While that improvement might not be meaningful for all men, the researchers say, their findings "strengthen existing knowledge that healthy dietary habits and increased physical activity are important components of health to improve quality of life in men by improving sexual health".
They add that lifestyle changes appear to work, regardless of whether men are taking sildenafil (Viagra) or not.
(Reuters Health, September 2011)