ERECTIONS ∙ 4 minutes read

Erectile dysfunction by age: is it just a number?

By Kirsty Mason | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

It’s an age-old question. As the average man loses his hair and hormones, does he also lose the ability to get an erection?

Although the link between age and erectile dysfunction (ED) seems obvious, scientific studies have shown that it’s more complex than first thought.

There’s a lot of evidence to show that older men are more likely to experience ED. But that isn’t to say that age alone is what causes a man to have ED - otherwise, every man would get ED at a certain age, which isn’t the case.

A large Swedish study demonstrated the link between ED and age, with a clear trend to demonstrate an increase in the rate of ED as men get older.

But insights from the study show that the risk of ED doesn’t depend on age alone.

According to the study, risk factors that are known to be associated with ED also increase as we age, which may explain why older men are more likely to experience the sexual dysfunction. These risk factors include medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, the use of medications, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and even living alone. This means that the association between ED and age may be down to confounding variables that are more likely to occur in older men.

This could explain why ED doesn’t increase so strictly throughout people’s lives. Another study in 2019 analysed the risk of developing ED at different ages and found that, when gauging the likelihood of getting ED, age alone isn’t the best predictor. In fact, it’s the lifestyle options throughout a man’s life that can be a more significant factor than just someone’s age. Let’s take a look at what these lifestyle factors might be.

Possible risk factors in your 20s - 30s

In your 20s and 30s, you’re in an age group known to be suffering from a lot of anxiety and early career stress. It’s also a time notorious for partying and drug misuse (and drug abuse can cause ED). People in this age group smoke more than the rest of the population - another potential cause of ED. And there’s also a rising culture of excessive pornography use among young people. This, experts say, is very likely to cause problems in young men’s intimate lives.

Possible risk factors in your 30s - 40s

In your 30s and 40s, you may experience more intense career and family stress. Your risk of developing physiological issues, like cardiovascular disease, also increases. It’s also around this time - sometimes earlier - that the consequences of heavy alcohol consumption can start to manifest themselves. Amongst these are peripheral neuropathy (reduced nerve function, which can cause ED) and obesity, which is associated with both reduced testosterone and cardiovascular disease - bad news for erectile function.

Possible risk factors in your 40s - 50+

Cardiovascular disease, a major cause of ED, is most common after 50, so the preceding years are crucial for taking control of all your cardiovascular risk factors: smoking, diabetes, obesity, inactivity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

At this age, you’re more likely to have experienced health complications and may have had surgery that puts you at greater risk of experiencing the condition, such as a prostatectomy or radiotherapy.

There is also the matter of ‘andropause’ the lesser-known male correspondent of the female menopause: testosterone is known to decline very gradually with age, which could increase your chances of experiencing ED.

How can I reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction as I age?

Although it’s impossible to avoid an increased risk of health issues as you age, there are measures you can take to reduce these risks.

We take a look at some of the key lifestyle habits that influence your sex life, and what you can do to protect your erections.

1. Exercise

Exercise is a pivotal part of a healthy lifestyle and it’s thought that physical activity can reduce your risk of erectile dysfunction. You can even try exercises specifically designed to combat erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation.

2. Diabetes

Diabetes is a well-known predictor of erectile dysfunction. You can check your risk of developing type 2 diabetes with a blood test. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and eating well all lower your likelihood of developing the condition. If you’re not sure where to start, try following our 7-day prediabetes diet plan.

3. Stress

Depression, as well as anxiety, are both linked to erectile dysfunction. There are endless reasons why looking after your mental health should be a priority, with combating ED just one of them.

4. Hormones

The male sex hormone, testosterone, has been linked to ED. This is probably down to the way the hormone influences your libido. It’s thought that lower levels of testosterone lead to a reduced sex drive, which makes it more difficult to achieve and maintain an erection. There are various ways to boost testosterone, but a healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise, a good diet, and supplements, is most effective in keeping your hormone levels in check.

5. Smoking

Smoking decreases the amount of nitric oxide in your blood, which is an important molecule for the widening of blood vessels. It also damages the blood vessel wall, inhibiting blood flow to the penis. Healthy blood flow is a critical step in the process of getting an erection, which is why damage to the blood vessels often translates to difficulties with erectile function.

6. Drinking

Struggling to get an erection after a boozy night out is extremely common as alcohol causes dehydration and a reduction in sensitivity. A more worrying consequence of alcohol abuse is long-term problems with getting an erection, which is caused by damage to nerve function after substantial, continuous abuse. This is why it’s crucial not to binge drink and exceed the recommended amount of units per week, as advised by the NHS.

7. Obesity

If you’re obese, you’re highly susceptible to erectile dysfunction. This is because being overweight puts you at risk of all sorts of health complications, including high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and low testosterone - conditions that are linked to ED. 

The bottom line

To maintain healthy erectile function no matter what stage of life you’re in, you can help by implementing a healthy lifestyle, including exercising regularly, going easy on the drinking, and cutting out cigarettes. Other lifestyle modifications include keeping an eye on what you eat as it’s of utmost importance that you take care of your cardiovascular health.

And if you do come across any problems with your erections anytime in your life, it’s really easy nowadays to find simple solutions to keep your sex life active while you figure out the underlying causes.

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