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ED, or erectile dysfunction, happens when you can’t get an erection sufficient for satisfying sex. This can mean being unable to get an erection at all or having erections that aren’t as firm or don’t last as long as you might like. Experts estimate 30 million American men have experienced ED at one time or another (Nunes, 2012). Having ED can also affect your sex drive.
ED can happen at any age, but it’s more common in men that are older. By the time a man is in his 40s, he has about a 40% chance of having experienced ED. That risk increases by about 10% for each decade of life—a 50% chance in his 50s, a 60% chance in his 60s, and so on (Ferrini, 2017).
- Erectile dysfunction, or ED, is the most common sexual problem in men.
- While ED does become more common with age, it’s not a natural part of aging.
- Health conditions associated with age—such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes—can contribute to ED.
- If you’re experiencing ED, it’s a good idea to talk with a healthcare provider to rule out a potentially dangerous medical issue.
So age is a risk factor for ED. But ED is not a natural part of aging that older men just have to accept and learn to live with (NIH, n.d.). It’s always worth addressing with a healthcare provider—ED can be a sign that something larger is going on with your health.
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Age and ED
There’s no specific age when men tend to get ED, but it becomes more likely after age 50. But even younger men in their 20s and earlier experience ED.
Age-related health conditions may also increase your risk of ED, including:
- Heart disease: The most common cause of ED in men over 50 is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries (Cleveland Clinic, n.d.). As men age, the linings of arteries become less flexible. That means they don’t expand as easily to let blood flow to where it needs to go (like to the penis to produce an erection). Plaque, caused by high cholesterol, can also build up in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the penis (Nunes, 2012).
- Hypertension: Also known as high blood pressure, hypertension means that blood pumps through blood vessels more forcefully than it should, potentially damaging and narrowing the blood vessel walls. This condition can lead to heart disease and stroke (American Heart Association, n.d.).
- Diabetes: High blood sugar associated with diabetes also can damage the walls of blood vessels, impeding blood flow (American Diabetes Association, n.d.).
- Stroke: A stroke can create neurological damage that can contribute to ED (Koehn, 2019).
- Cancer: A variety of physical and psychological issues related to cancer symptoms, surgery, and treatment can contribute to ED (American Cancer Society, n.d.).
- Anxiety and depression: ED isn’t necessarily “all in your head,” but depression, anxiety disorders, and issues like relationship problems and performance anxiety can all cause ED (Rajkumar, 2015).
Other lifestyle risk factors for ED
ED can also occur as a side effect of certain medications, including antidepressants. If you’re experiencing ED, be sure to tell a healthcare provider about all the medications you’re taking. They might be able to adjust your dose or substitute another medication.
Other lifestyle factors that can contribute to ED include: Having excess weight or obesity, not getting enough exercise, smoking or using tobacco products, drinking excessively (having more than two alcoholic drinks a day), and using recreational drugs.
ED can also result from physical conditions in which the body’s nerves are damaged or don’t function properly, such as nerve and spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.
How to treat ED
The good news is that there are many options for treating ED.
Oral medications for ED are highly effective at improving sexual function. Several are available, including sildenafil (brand name Viagra), tadalafil (brand name Cialis), and vardenafil (brand names Levitra and Staxyn).
Non-oral medications have been helpful for some men, including alprostadil, papaverine plus phentolamine (brand name BiMix) and papaverine, phentolamine, and alprostadil (brand name TriMix). These are medications that can be injected directly into the penis, causing an erection.
Some men have found natural remedies for ED to be effective at improving their erections, and some research backs that up: Studies have shown that certain supplements (such as DHEA, ginseng, L-arginine, L-carnitine, and yohimbe) may be helpful for relieving ED.
If low testosterone is responsible for your ED, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) can boost your testosterone levels via injection, a wearable patch, or a gel applied to the skin.
For some men with ED, using a device such as a penis pump, cock ring, or—in severe cases—a surgically placed penis implant has been effective in restoring sexual function.
Your erections will be best when you’re healthy. Making simple lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and recreational drugs, and limiting your alcohol consumption might be enough to improve ED and your sexual health.
No matter what your age, if you’re experiencing ED, it’s a good idea to talk with a healthcare provider to identify any underlying health conditions and find a treatment plan that is right for you.