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A New Risk Factor for Erectile Dysfunction?

It’s starting to look like age-related prostate enlargement contributes to ED

Erectile dysfunction (ED) has many well-documented risk factors, notably age and cardiovascular disease, but prostate enlargement, is not among them. That may soon change. Research over the past decade has suggested that early-onset noncancerous prostate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia, BPH) is linked to early ED. The association, if any, remains murky. Researchers don’t know if BPH is a true risk factor, or if the same processes that produce BPH also contribute to ED. But it’s starting to look as though men with early BPH are at increased risk for early ED.

The Pesky Prostate

The prostate (not prostrate—no “r”) is a walnut-sized, donut-shaped gland located below the male bladder. It produces most of the fluid in semen. The prostate also has the urethra running through it, the tube that carries urine and semen out of the body.

Unless it gets infected, the prostate remains so unnoticed that many men hardly know they have one. But after age 30, the little gland starts growing. Prostate growth might signal prostate cancer. That’s why men over 45 should have annual prostate exams. But most midlife prostate growth is noncancerous BPH, which starts to cause symptoms in some men in their forties, and in most by 60.

As BPH progresses, the swelling prostate pinches the urethra. This is painless, but it causes urinary difficulties:

• Feeling a sudden need to urinate immediately (urgency).

• Difficulty getting started (hesitancy).

• Weak flow.

• Difficulty finishing (dribbling).

• And having to get up at night to urninate one or more times (nocturia).

Men’s prostates balloon because of age-related hormonal changes. After around 40, men’s blood levels of free testosterone decline, while other hormone levels increase, notably, prolactin. These changes increase prostate levels of an auxiliary male sex hormone, dihydrotestosterone, which is responsible for the mid-life prostate growth and BPH. By age 50, BPH affects around half of men, and more as age increases.

Testosterone requires an enzyme to become dihydrotestosterone, 5-alpha-reductase. Leading BPH treatments work by interfering with its action.

Coincidence or Contributor?

BPH and ED have several elements in common:

• Both develop during the same stage of life, after around 45.

• Both tend to get worse with age.

• Recent research suggest that the two conditions share some physiological mechanisms.

• The nerves that control erection run right next to the prostate. That’s why prostate cancer treatment often causes ED. It damages those nerves. It’s also possible that prostate enlargement may pinch these nerves and contribute to ED.

• Treatment of ED, especially with Cialis, may improve BPH symptoms.

• Treatment of BPH may cause sexual side effects, notably erection impariment. The treatment most closely associated with erection problems is finasteride (Proscar).

The connection, if any, between BPH and ED remains unexplained. But European researchers have documented “a strong and consistent association between BPH and ED.” And in a review of this line of research, New York University urologistJed Kaminetsky, M.D., went even further, asserting that BPH “is an independent risk factor for ED.”

Bottom line:

• The younger a man is when diagnosed with BPH, the more likely he is to develop ED on the early side of aging.

• Men who develop symptoms of either BPH or ED should ask their doctors to evaluate them for both conditions.

• BPH treatment may have no impact on sexual function, or possibly even improve it. But BPH treatment, especially with finasteride, may precipitate or aggravate ED. Unfortunately, doctors rarely alert men to this possibility.


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