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August 17th, 2011
10:08 AM ET

Erectile dysfunction: The leading indicator of heart disease in men

Editor's note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the signs, tests and lifestyle changes that could make cardiac problems a thing of the past on "The Last Heart Attack," Saturday, August 27,  8 and 11 p.m. ET.

Dr. Dean Ornish who designed a diet and lifestyle to reverse heart disease will be live with CNNHealth to answer your questions. He will answer your questions Thursday, August 18, at noon EST.  Follow #LastHeartAttack on Twitter and Tweet your questions to @CNNhealth or ask them in the comment section here.

What's the leading indicator of heart disease for men? It's a surprising answer that affects at least 30 million men in the United States but most men don't talk about, according to the National Institute of Health.

The answer is erectile dysfunction, difficulty maintaining an erection sufficient for sex. "I would say that erectile dysfunction is the canary in the coal mine," says Dr. Terry Mason a urologist and chief medical officer at Cook County Hospitals in Chicago. "When men begin to have erectile dysfunction it's a sign that there's more widespread disease and not just for the heart but throughout all the blood vessels in the body."

"In the penis, what we learned is those cells, those cells that line the blood vessels – those things we call the endothelial cells, they're more of those per unit volume in the penis than anywhere else in the body. So any disease that causes a problem with those cells, is going to manifest itself in a male particularly, as erectile dysfunction," adds Mason.

Understanding the connection between ED and heart disease is especially important because it may help in early diagnosis and treatment before heart problems become serious. When we talk about heart disease, we're usually talking about plaque building up in the blood vessels leading to the heart and limiting the amount of blood able to pass through them. But those blood vessels aren't isolated and they are connected to the rest of the body, and one blood vessel in particular is particularly sensitive to a narrowing that limits blood flow.

Researchers found erectile dysfunction to be a strong predictor of death in men with cardiovascular disease, and those men with ED were 1.6 times more likely to suffer from a serious cardiovascular problem such as a heart attack or stroke, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Age also plays a role. The younger men are, especially those under age 50, it's more likely that erectile dysfunction is a sign of a cardiac issue. In men over age 70, it's much less likely to be a sign of heart disease.

For men having issues with ED, they should talk to their doctors about a cardiology workup to determine existing cardiovascular disease and proper treatment. A lifestyle change maybe necessary as well. Eating better, watching cholesterol, stopping smoking, and exercising more may be beneficial. While drugs for erectile dysfunction may cure the initial problem, they do not protect against cardiovascular or other life-threatening illnesses so figuring out the root of the problem first is key.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.