Sept. 13, 2011 — We know that eating a healthy diet that’s loaded with fruits and veggies, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a normal weight will help reduce your risk for heart attack and stroke. Now new research shows that these same lifestyle changes may be effective in improving erectile dysfunction (ED).

What’s more, erectile dysfunction may be a risk factor for heart disease, often appearing as many as five years before a diagnosis of heart problems.

The study is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

“The risk factors for narrowing of the heart arteries and erectile dysfunction are really almost exactly the same: lack of exercise, being overweight or obese, diabetes, smoking, high bloodcholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and eating a poor diet,” says study researcher Stephen L. Kopecky, MD, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

“You can treat your heart with lifestyle changes, and these same changes will benefit erectile dysfunction,” he says.

The new study included 740 men from six studies; their average age was about 55. Lifestyle changes with or without medication such as cholesterol-lowering drugs improved erectile dysfunction and helped lower bloodcholesterol levels.

“If a man in their 30s to 50s has erectile dysfunction, he should see the heart doctor and get checked over,” Kopeck tells WebMD. “A lot of things will show up even before a stroke or heart attack.”

Incentives for a Healthy Lifestyle

Thomas A. Pearson, MD, PhD, MPH, co-authored an editorial that’s published with the new study. He is the Albert D. Kaiser Professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.

“Healthy lifestyles have important benefits on conditions that are especially meaningful to men, such as sexual function,” he tells WebMD in an email. “Some men do not seem to be alarmed with unhealthy lifestyles causing heart attack and cancer. The enormous and expensive use of drugs for erectile dysfunction suggests that this might be an important enough issue to motivate them to adopt better lifestyle habits.”

It’s about reaching men and women where they live, he says. “Often, a man or woman will have a benefit that really engages them [and] the skillful clinician will find that issue and use it to change the person’s unhealthy habits into healthy benefits.”

Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, an attending cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, drives home the same point: Erectile dysfunction may be a very early indicator for heart disease.

“It is one of the warning signs that says there may a larger problem with the heart,” she says. “Diet, exercise, and weight loss will improve the symptoms of erectile dysfunction and lower risk for heart attack and stroke.”

This may be enough to get men to make the changes that they need to live longer and healthier lives. “We all want to grow old gracefully and for men, the motivation may be to stay virile,” Steinbaum says.