Erectile dysfunction (ED) affects 50% of men older than 40 years,  exerting substantial effects on quality of life.  This common problem is complex and involves multiple pathways. Penile erections are produced by an integration of physiologic processes involving the central nervous, peripheral nervous, hormonal, and vascular systems. Any abnormality in these systems, whether from medication or disease, has a significant impact on the ability to develop and sustain an erection, ejaculate, and experience orgasm.
The percentage of men who engage in some form of sexual activity decreases from 73% for men aged 57–64 years to 26% for men aged 75–85 years.3 For some men, this constitutes a problem, but for others it does not. The aetiology for this decline in sexual activity is multifactorial and is in part due to the fact that most of the female partners undergo menopause at 52 years of age with a significant decline in their libido and desire to engage in sexual activity. A study by Lindau and colleagues3 that examined sexuality in older Americans showed that 50% of the men in a probability sample of more than 3000 US adults reported at least one bothersome sexual problem and 33% had at least two such problems.3 This article will review the normal changes that occur with ageing, factors that influence these changes, individual variations and perspectives, and the available treatment options for ED and androgen deficiency.
• Medications: About 25 percent of ED cases are caused by drugs. Many medications, including common medicines prescribed for diabetes and its complications, can cause ED. The most common offenders are blood pressure drugs, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, appetite suppressants, and cimetidine (an ulcer drug). In addition, over-the-counter medications, including certain eye drops and nose drops, have been associated with ED. That does not mean you should stop taking these medications! Rather, you should discuss them with your doctor to determine whether a different dosage, an alternate medicine, or additional treatments will resolve the ED.
Hormone deficiency or hypogonadism, whether primary or secondary, has been thought to impact erectile function. Approximately a third of men in the European Male Aging Study demonstrated low testosterone, suggesting that hypogonadism is overrepresented among men with ED.11 Hormone deficiency, however, is less frequently the cause of ED than diabetes or vascular disease. Many entities with a strong relationship to ED also diminish bioavailable testosterone, including obesity, diabetes, and opioid use. Other hormones involved in testosterone metabolism or availability, like thyroid stimulating hormone and gonadotropins, also may impact erectile quality, presumably through regulating bioavailable testosterone. Understanding the relationship between testosterone and ED has been impaired by a lack of standardized measurement of this hormone and the cyclic nature of its release and consumption.
Sexual dysfunction and ED become more common as men age. The percentage of complete ED increases from 5% to 15% as age increases from 40 to 70 years. But this does not mean growing older is the end of your sex life. ED can be treated at any age. Also, ED may be more common in Hispanic men and in those with a history of diabetes, obesity, smoking, and hypertension. Research shows that African-American men sought medical care for ED twice the rate of other racial groups.
Caution is recommended regarding the use of PDE-5 inhibitors and alpha-blockers (for example, Hytrin, Cardura, Uroxatral, Flomax, Rapaflo), medications commonly used to treat benign prostate enlargement (BPH). The combination of these medications can cause lowering of the blood pressure. Stable use of one therapy should occur prior to the addition of the other therapy, which should start at a low dose.
Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a safety announcement regarding TRT. In part it reads ‘The benefit and safety of these medications have not been established. We are also requiring these manufacturers to add information to the labeling about a possible increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients taking testosterone.’37
MSA is a neurodegenerative disease of undetermined etiology, where ED is an early prominent sign occurring in 40% of men at the time of diagnosis (46,47). ED occurs in the majority of patients and the exact cause of it is unknown (48). Like PD, MSA likely affects the dopaminergic pathways within the brain essential for arousal (49). Orthostatic hypotension (OH) as a causal factor has been refuted by evidence that sildenafil can overcome reduced filling pressures, and the ED usually precedes the development of OH (46,49,50). Similar to other neurologic disorders that lead to ED, other disease related factors such as psychosocial stress, the burden of chronic illness, changed appearance, fatigue, decreased fine motor movement of fingers, immobility and diminished self-esteem due to loss of independence may contribute as well (51).
Usually there will not be a specific treatment that will lead to the improvement of erectile dysfunction. However, there are treatments that will allow erections to happen and can be used to allow sexual activity to take place. There are three main types of treatments: non-invasive treatments such as tablet medicines and external devices (e.g. vacuum device); penile injections; or for men who have not had success with other treatments, surgery may be an option.
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If you have unstable heart disease of any kind, heart failure or unstable, what we call angina, contraindication to using the medications. All right? So if you’re in an unstable medical state, these medications are not a good idea. Now, there are relative issues. If you may be taking a blood pressure medicine or a medicine for your prostate which dilates your blood vessel a little bit– you know, the typical ones are what we call the alpha blockers– you may have an additive effect from the medication. But for the most part, the medicines are incredibly safe.
Several pathways have been described to explain how information travels from the hypothalamus to the sacral autonomic centers. One pathway travels from the dorsomedial hypothalamus through the dorsal and central gray matter, descends to the locus ceruleus, and projects ventrally in the mesencephalic reticular formation. Input from the brain is conveyed through the dorsal spinal columns to the thoracolumbar and sacral autonomic nuclei.
While studies are limited, it has been shown that male sexual dysfunction can also negatively impact the sexual function of female partners. A study comparing the sexual function of women with partners with erectile dysfunction to those without showed that sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, pain and total score were significantly lower in those who had partners with erectile dysfunction. Later in that study, a large proportion of the men with erectile dysfunction underwent treatment. Following treatment, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain were all significantly increased. It was concluded that female sexual function is impacted by male erection status, which may improve following treatment of male sexual dysfunction.
Supplements are popular and often cheaper than prescription drugs for ED. However, supplements have not been tested to see how well they work or if they are a safe treatment for ED. Patients should know that many over-the-counter drugs have been found on drug testing to have ‘bootlegged' PDE 5 Inhibitors as their main ingredient. The amounts of Viagra, Cialis, Levitra or Stendra that may be in these supplements is not under quality control and may differ from pill to pill. The FDA has issued consumer warnings and alerts.