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Dementia

Could Viagra Help Forestall Dementia?

Viagra and Alzheimer's research: The boring and the interesting.

Key points

  • Viagra use in men has been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Men who take Viagra also tend to be more physically and sexually active, both health-promoting behaviors.
  • Viagra use may also help lower stress and improve relationship intimacy.

Men who take Viagra are much less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. This may lead to valuable conclusions about forestalling senile dementia, or it may turn out to be a false lead.

First, the boring conclusions: Researchers need to do a controlled study to find out whether there is a causal connection between the use of Viagra and a reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. While Viagra users had a 69 percent reduction in the rate of Alzheimer's, this is merely a correlation. As such, it has many possible explanations.

The connection might simply be a side effect of the fact that users are likely to be wealthier than nonusers. The Sildenafil brand examined in the study is comparatively expensive, costing around $6 per pill. Wealthier people tend to be healthier for numerous reasons, and tend to have lower levels of senile dementia (1). Some idea of how important income is for health was established by the finding that residents of poor zip codes in the U.S. might have lifespans as much as two decades shorter than those in wealthy zip codes.

However long they live, though, affluent people may still develop Alzheimer's disease close to the end of their lives. Even so, wealth is an advantage because wealthier people tend to be better educated, and this greatly reduces the incidence of senile dementia (2). They also lead more active social lives and have better health behavior, both of which can be protective against dementia.

Instead of Viagra reducing Alzheimer's, it is possible that the causal arrow runs in the opposite direction: It could be that healthier men are more sexually active late in their lives, so they are more likely to use Viagra to improve erectile function.

The Interesting Explanation

Let us assume that the connection between Viagra use and Alzheimer's is not just a statistical fluke and that it has possible implications for preventing senile dementia. There are two possible directions where this could go. First, Viagra may affect cardiovascular health, specifically blood circulation in the brain that deteriorates in old age, impeding normal cognitive function.

Second, men who remain sexually active may lead more stimulating social lives that keep their brains active and youthful.

1. Physiology

Viagra was first developed as a drug for treating blood pressure. Several lines of evidence connect cognitive function with cardiovascular health. One of the simplest and most remarkable is that even moderate physical activity enhances the growth of neurons and cognitive function. People who have healthy circulatory systems are more likely to be physically active and thereby resist the cognitive decline that comes with aging.

In addition to their correlational data, the researchers found that neurons treated with Viagra in vitro showed improvement in the signs of Alzheimer's.

Apart from the neural plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer's disease, one of the signatures of age-related dementia is poor circulation, particularly in brain capillaries. So there are numerous plausible mechanisms through which Viagra could influence cognitive function.

The connections do not end there because men who use Viagra are likely to be more sexually active. Ever since the Study of Welsh men from Caerphilly found that frequent orgasm was associated with much lower mortality (about 50 percent lower), a body of evidence indicates that sexual activity produces health benefits for both genders, but particularly for men. This lower mortality also implies better cardiovascular health, because heart disease is a leading cause of death.

In addition to better cardiovascular health in sexually active men, there might also be psychological benefits, including reduced stress levels.

2. Psychology

Sexual activity offers many psychological benefits in addition to its possible impact on cardiovascular function. One of the more obvious is reduced stress, if one accepts that sexual behavior may contribute to peace of mind and facilitate sleep. These benefits are associated with lower stress levels, and reduced stress may improve cognitive function, generalizing from experiments showing that stressors, such as loud noise, impair cognitive skills.

No less important is the contribution that sexual behavior may make to intimacy in a long-term relationship. Such intimacy appears to be protective against cardiovascular disease and is thus associated with any physiological benefits derived from Viagra use.

Conclusion

Viagra could have a direct effect on reducing the neural signs of Alzheimer's disease. Moreover, Viagra may improve cognitive function in addition to improving cardiovascular health, although such benefits are linked to healthy lifestyles. A healthy lifestyle includes not just good health behavior—as is generally understood—but also an active sex life, which is facilitated in men who use Viagra.

References

1 Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

2 Molla, M. T., Madans, J. H., and Wagener, D. K. ( 2004). Differentials in adult mortality and activity limitation by years of education in the united states at the end of the 1990s. Population and Development Review. 30, 625-646.

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