Until recently, erectile dysfunction (ED) was one of the most neglected complications of diabetes. In the past, physicians and patients were led to believe that declining sexual function was an inevitable consequence of advancing age or was brought on by emotional problems. This misconception, combined with men’s natural reluctance to discuss their sexual problems and physicians’ inexperience and unease with sexual issues, resulted in failure to directly address this problem with the majority of patients experiencing it.
The penis is composed of three cylinders: two on the top, the corpora cavernosa and one on the bottom, the corpus spongiosum. All of these are involved in the process of an erection. The corpora cavernosa are composed of potential spaces that can distend with blood, causing rigidity of the penile shaft. The corpus spongiosum is important for rigidity of the glans of the penis. When aroused, stimulated chemicals are released from the nervous system (nitric oxide is one) that stimulate the arteries to the penis to relax and increase blood flow into the penis. These potential spaces, like a sponge, can expand when more blood flow comes in the penis. Each corpora cavernosa is surrounded by an outer coating the tunica albuginea. When the penis fills with blood, these potential spaces, the sinusoids, compress the veins in the corpora against the side of the tunica albuginea, thus preventing blood from leaving the penis. It is this compression of the veins that allows for the erection to become fully rigid.
Describing the epidemiology of ED in young men requires, first of all, defining what it is meant by youth. While the definition of old age is matter of discussion and a precise threshold does not exist, the most shared definition in Western Countries is age above 65 years (http://www.who.int/healthinfo/survey/ageingdefnolder/en/). Considering that most of the epidemiological studies on general populations aimed at studying health changes with age, enrol men more than 40 years, it seems reasonable to define young age as below 40 years. Epidemiological studies on erectile function, which considered the prevalence of ED according to age bands, consistently find a significant increase with ageing. Advancing age remains one of the most important unmodifiable risk factors for ED (1). Studies on ED mostly involve middle-aged and older men, with younger aged men often overlooked. In a multi-centre worldwide study, involving more than 27,000 men from eight countries, Rosen et al. (2) showed an ED prevalence of 8% among men aged 20–29 years and 11% among those aged 30–39 years. Most of the studies involving younger men and conducting age-stratified analyses have been performed in Europe, where the prevalence of ED in men younger than 40 years ranges between 1% to 10% (3-10). The prevalence reported in these studies is highly variable due to different methodologies used in defining ED, population accrual, acquisition of data and choice of tools for investigating erectile function. A smaller number of studies on this topic have been conducted outside Europe. Both in Australia (11,12) and in America (13-15), the available information suggests a similar range of prevalence of ED among young subjects, with the same extent of variability among studies. According to these data, ED in younger men, although still not extensively studied and largely overlooked by the scientific community, is a quite common condition. In a recent study conducted in a Urology Clinic, it has been observed that one out of four men seeking medical care for ED was younger than 40 years (16). In our Sexual Medicine and Andrology Unit, established in an Endocrinology setting at the University of Florence, medical consultations for younger men are infrequent, with a prevalence of men aged less than 40 years at only 14.1% of more than 3,000 men complaining of ED. However, when considering the new referrals to our Unit during the last 6 years, we can notice a progressive increase in prevalence of men below 40 years seeking medical care for ED (Figure 1). According to these data, ED is becoming a common concern even among young men, and the clinical practitioner in sexual medicine must become aware of how to manage the problem and avoid underestimating a symptom. The identification of ED in a young man may potentially provide a great deal of useful information that can help improve their quality and even length of life.
Men with diabetes tend to develop erectile dysfunction 10 to 15 years earlier than men without diabetes. As men with diabetes age, erectile dysfunction becomes even more common. Above the age of 50, the likelihood of having difficulty with an erection occurs in approximately 50% to 60% of men with diabetes. Above age 70, there is about a 95% likelihood of having some difficulty with erectile dysfunction.