Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common problem that affects about half of all men over the age of 50 in the UK. Some men panic and assume that it is an incurable condition, and others may quietly ignore the problem out of a sense of fear or embarrassment. Unfortunately, neither of these responses will lead to men getting the help they need.

ED is not an inevitable part of getting older, and in many cases a quick trip to the doctor can soon put things right. Here in the UK, men are notably poor about discussing their health problems, and when it comes to problems in the bedroom, they would really rather not. 

Blame it on toxic masculinity, taboos, or just a lack of time, but often men ignore health problems until they are much more serious, or even until it is too late to do anything about it. However, research shows that men do look up health information online in equal numbers to women. Here are some answers to common queries about ED. 

What is ED?

ED is defined as the inability to get or maintain an erection long enough for a satisfactory sexual experience. The male body needs a combination of testosterone, a blood supply to the penis, nerve impulses that travel between the brain and the penis, and also the ability to become sexually aroused. 

When anything disrupts this balance, it can affect the ability to get an erection.  

What causes ED?

Doctors usually divide the causes of ED into mental and physical factors. They will usually ask a patient general questions about their state of health, and may carry out some tests such as a blood pressure check. Physical causes include damage to the nerves that supply blood to the penis; a narrowing of the blood vessels; or a trauma to the spinal cord.

Lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking to excess, taking recreational drugs, and eating a poor diet that is high in sugar and unsaturated fats can also cause ED. 75 per cent of all diabetic men aged between 60 and 64 have ED, according to Men’s Health Forum

The risk of ED may also be increased by prostate gland surgery, or other surgery in the pelvic area such as bladder and bowel operations. In some cases, ED may be caused by low testosterone levels.  

Common mental causes of ED include stress, anxiety and depression; relationship difficulties; low self esteem; or unresolved issues with sexual orientation. 

How can ED be treated?

The treatment for ED will depend on the cause. It’s important to consult a doctor if you have been experiencing persistent ED, because it can be the sign of a serious problem such as heart disease or diabetes. 

The first line of medical treatment most doctors will offer a patient with ED include tablets such as sildenafil (the trade name for Viagra) or tadalafil (the trade name for Cialis). These are oral treatments that need to be prescribed by a doctor or pharmacist, and should only be taken according to the manufacturer’s instructions. 

If the doctor suspects that there may be a psychological cause for ED, the patient may be referred for counselling or offered a treatment such as antidepressants. However some types of antidepressants can counteract the effect of sildenafil, so check with your doctor if this is a concern. 

Other less common treatments include hormonal supplements, vacuum pumps, injection therapy, or penile implants. However, many men find these treatments overly intrusive and detrimental to the overall satisfaction of their sexual experience. 

Can ED be prevented?

In many cases, making lifestyle changes, including eating a healthy balanced diet, taking regular exercise, drinking less, stopping smoking and losing weight can make a big difference. These measures can also help to protect the body against a range of chronic health conditions that affect people in middle and older age. 

Do most men recover from ED?

There are very effective clinically proven treatments for ED, and the majority of men will respond well to them. However, it’s important to see a doctor to ensure that you are receiving the most appropriate course of treatments, and to pick up any other problems that might benefit from early medical intervention.