To Help Erectile Dysfunction, Treat the Heart

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Photo Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images

Erectile dysfunction has become the target of some blockbuster drugs and a lot of jokes on late-night TV, but the condition may help save lives — at least indirectly.

New research from the Mayo Clinic shows that the symptoms of erectile dysfunction (ED) can be improved with some lifestyle changes: lowering cholesterol, controlling blood pressure, losing excess weight and exercising more.

Sound familiar? These are the same behaviors that cardiologists urge patients to adopt in order to maintain a healthy heart. But, not surprisingly, doctors say people are more likely to follow the advice if they’re motivated to treat problems with erection than to address heart disease.

Reporting in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a team led by Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a professor of medicine and cardiovascular diseases, found that men with ED who either made lifestyle changes to lower their risk of heart disease (such as exercising more and eating healthier) or took medications to control their high cholesterol or blood pressure were 2.5 times more likely to see improvements in their sexual function over a period of at least six weeks than those who didn’t make the heart-healthy changes.

The findings are the result of a meta-analysis of data from six clinical trials that included 740 participants from four countries.

It makes sense when you consider that the two conditions, among many others, are related to improper blood flow. The arteries that provide blood to heart and those that expand to sustain an erection are part of the same system.

“It’s a fascinating thing, but all the arteries are connected,” says Kopecky. “We know that the risk factors for stroke are the same as for heart disease. We know that the risk factors for ED are the same as for heart disease. And we are finding that the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s are the same as for heart disease.

“So we want people to know that No. 1, there are a lot of diseases that are simply different manifestations of the same disease process, and No. 2, that we can play a huge role in limiting how quickly that process evolves.”

As doctors have long known, ED is a harbinger of heart disease. Because the arteries in the penis can become damaged or clogged by the same types of fatty plaques that block heart arteries and cause chest pain or a full-on heart attack — typically the first signs of cardiovascular trouble — erectile dysfunction may predict heart disease, especially in younger men.

“If you get ED, that precedes the symptoms of arteries in the heart being narrowed by three to five years,” says Kopecky. “And that’s a good thing to look for to know who is at risk for heart disease.”

Of course, patients tend to be more likely to pay attention to their immediate symptoms of ED than to the potential risk of heart disease down the road. Not to mention that people also can get complacent about staying heart healthy, when they know they can take powerful medications to control heart risk factors like high cholesterol and blood pressure.

So, says Kopecky, “If you talk to patients about things like ED, they really do start to pay attention more, and are more motivated to change their lifestyle.”

If they do that, they may also be doing their heart some good. Already, urologists at Mayo refer younger patients with ED to heart specialists to ensure they don’t have underlying heart disease. Recognizing and addressing risk factors early can avert a lot of costly, painful and potentially deadly disease.

If that isn’t enough motivation for ED patients to eat better, exercise more and lower their blood pressure, there’s always this: Kopecky’s team found that men who were taking medications such as Viagra (sildenafil), Levitra (vardenafil) and Cialis (Tadalafil) to treat ED reaped even more benefits to sexual function if they also addressed their heart disease risk factors. “We can say that the pills will work better if you do these things,” says Kopecky.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.