Young Men, Beware: 5 Habits Could Cause ED as You Age
When we're in the pleasures of our youth, the idea that our bodies will change as we grow older is often only a theoretical concept. We know it's going to happen but don't have an idea of what it will look like.
You might smoke in your 20s and still be able to run or play sports. You might put on the dreaded "freshman 15" when you go off to school, but maybe the weight gain doesn't instantly change your life.
Unfortunately, some things you do to your body when you're young have the potential to cause erectile dysfunction (ED) as you age. Statistics as to its prevalence vary, but a common formula cited says 40 percent of men in their 40s, 50 percent of men in their 50s and so on will experience some form of ED. Here, we'll look at five choices "old you" wishes "young you" would make differently.
Young people who smoke may think they'll just quit down the road and all will be fine, and it might be. However, the damage smoking does to your blood vessels can have long-term effects.
Your penis gets hard because increased blood flow floods the chambers inside it called the corpora cavernosa, and anything that affects blood flow can potentially have a negative effect on your ability to get and maintain an erection.
Studies indicate that in younger men who develop ED, smoking is likely to be the cause, and the problem only gets worse with age. Additionally, research shows that smoking affects nitric oxide pathways, which are crucial components of erectile function.
The good news is that quitting now can help.
2. Abusing alcohol
Chronic alcohol abuse has a host of effects on bodily functions, many of which directly affect your ability to get an erection.
A 2021 meta-analysis suggested anywhere between 16 percent and 73 percent of men who chronically drink heavily have complications with their autonomic nervous system, the most common symptom of which is ED.
Excessive drinking also leads to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, both of which negatively affect erectile function.
"High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease," said Amy Pearlman, M.D., the director of men's health at the Carver College of Medicine at University of Iowa Health Care. "When not controlled, it can damage arteries that are necessary to give blood to various parts of the body. In order to get and maintain erections, there needs to be good blood flow into the penile tissue from the arteries. Uncontrolled high blood pressure leads to damage to arteries, which leads to inadequate blood flow into the penis, which leads to erectile dysfunction."
3. Gaining weight
While younger men may be able to eat just about anything and let their metabolism do the work, gaining weight as an early adult can have significant consequences down the road, including the way your penis operates.
One study showed that 79 percent of men who presented with erectile dysfunction were overweight or obese. It's believed that obesity and one of its most common comorbidities, diabetes, are responsible for 8 million cases of ED in the United States. Diabetes damages the tiny nerves in your extremities, including your penis.
"I see a lot of guys come in with high A1C, which is a measure of their previous three months' glucose levels," said Neel Parekh, M.D., a men's fertility specialist with Cleveland Clinic. "If they're high, that's obviously a negative sign. I'm going to assume their erections are being affected negatively by their poorly controlled diabetes."
Guys, just understand that if uncontrolled diabetes has developed to the point where you feel tingling in your fingers and toes, that means nerve damage has already been done to the even tinier nerves in your penis.
"Typically, the nerve damage is irreversible," Parekh added. "At that point, to prevent things from progressing even more to where they would require a penile implant, the sooner they reverse course [on blood sugar] the better."
4. Eating poorly
Speaking of diet, did you know that eating processed foods to excess causes inflammation, which can also affect erections?
Inflammation is the body's response to a problem such as a disease or a sprain. It's why you get a fever or experience swelling. While inflammation is sometimes a normal and necessary function, chronic inflammation damages cells and has a hand in causing issues such as heart disease, diabetes and ED.
"Pro-inflammatory nutrition can worsen ED," Pearlman explained. "Anti-inflammatory nutrition can improve the nitric oxide pathways that are critical for erections."
The broad rule of thumb for choosing foods that are anti-inflammatory is to stick with natural, unprocessed options such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. Think of switching to a Mediterranean diet and avoiding foods like potato chips and processed bread that contain long lists of chemical additives. Also, limit your red meat intake.
5. Letting depression go untreated
Depression is becoming increasingly prevalent. According to one 2020 study, rates of depression symptoms tripled during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The link between ED and depression is firmly established. The tricky part is knowing which came first, the chicken or the egg. That is to say, in some patients, treating depression led to better sexual function, while in others, treating ED led to better mood and sense of well-being.
It's great to be young and carefree and have fun with our fresh-off-the-shelf bodies. But for men planning to live awhile, being able to avoid erectile dysfunction as they age could continue the fun. Making a few sensible choices now can help ensure happiness in the future for you and your potential partners.