It's been branded the “canary in the trousers". Erection problems in men can be a marker not only for heart problems but also indicate the severity of cardiovascular disease.
New Australian research has shown that even minor erection problems could be indicators for heart disease.
A study, led by Professor Emily Banks of the ANU, found that men with severe erectile dysfunction had a 50 to 100 per cent higher risk than men with no erection problems of ischemic heart disease, peripheral vascular disease and other cardiovascular problems.
“Men with severe erectile dysfunction have around a 60 per cent higher risk of being admitted to hospital for coronary disease than men with no erectile dysfunction. They're also twice as likely to die during the follow-up period," Professor Banks.
Doctors already knew that erectile dysfunction could be an early warning sign for heart problems.
But the research was the first to review all levels from erectile dysfunction: from none, to minor, moderate and severe.
“There's a gradient risk with increasing severity. The implication of that is that men with potentially relatively minor erectile dysfunction could be on that gradient towards getting heart disease," Professor Banks said.
As well as being a warning sign that men might be unknowingly suffering from heart problems, erectile dysfunction could indicate that known sufferers needed to be on a different treatment regime.
Rob Grenfell, director of Cardiovascular Health at the Heart Foundation, said erectile dysfunction could be described as a “canary in the trousers".
Dr Grenfell said men with erection problems should seek medical advice and insist on a cardiovascular health check.
“People who have erectile difficulties should definitely have a heart health check to determine what is their risk of heart disease and of course if they do have a high risk there they should be treating it," he said.
Prompt treatment for heart problems could reduce the risk of errection problems worsening, Dr Grenfell said.
The research was conducted using using records from 95,000 men who participated in the Sax Institute's NSW-based "45 and Up Study". The findings have been published in the international journal "PLOS Medicine" and the study was funded by the Heart Foundation and NSW Government.
Professor Banks said the findings demonstrated the value of large population-based data sets in health research.
She said there were several theories about why cardiovascular disease could cause erection problems in men.
"The penile arteries are smaller than the arteries in the heart or the brain or the periphery, so they might show warning signs early. But they are also very sensitive to the lining of the arteries," Professor Banks said.