Many factors can contribute to sexual dysfunction in older men, including physical and psychological conditions, comorbidities and the medications used to treat them. Aspects of an ageing man’s lifestyle and behaviour and androgen deficiency, most often decreasing testosterone levels, may affect sexual function as well. A study of men between the ages of 30 and 79 years showed that 24% had testosterone levels below 300 ng/dL and 5.6% had symptomatic androgen deficiency.2
An occasional problem achieving an erection is nothing to worry about. But failure to do so more than 50% of the time at any age may indicate a condition that needs treatment. About 40% of men in their 40s report at least occasional problems getting and maintaining erections. So do more than half (52%) of men aged 40 to 70, and about 70% of men in their 70s.
Some self-administered measures may be useful in the primary care setting to screen for and evaluate the degree of ED.12 The most commonly used instrument is the International Index of Erectile Function, a 15-item questionnaire that has been validated in many populations and is considered the gold standard to evaluate patients for ED.13 The Sexual Health Inventory for Men is a short-form, 5-item questionnaire developed to monitor treatment progress.12 It is important to recognize that short-form questionnaire does not evaluate specific areas of the sexual cycle, such as sexual desire, ejaculation, and orgasm; however, it may be useful in discussing ED with patients and evaluating treatment results over time.
As recently as two decades ago, doctors tended to blame erectile dysfunction on psychological problems or, with older men, on the normal aging process. Today, the pendulum of medical opinion has swung away from both notions. While arousal takes longer as a man ages, chronic erectile dysfunction warrants medical attention. Moreover, the difficulty is often not psychological in origin. Today, urologists believe that physical factors underlie the majority of cases of persistent erectile dysfunction in men over age 50.
The link between chronic disease and ED is most striking for diabetes. Men who have diabetes are two to three times more likely to have erectile dysfunction than men who do not have diabetes. Among men with erectile dysfunction, those with diabetes may experience the problem as much as 10 to 15 years earlier than men without diabetes. Yet evidence shows that good blood sugar control can minimize this risk. Other conditions that may cause ED include cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), kidney disease, and multiple sclerosis. These illnesses can impair blood flow or nerve impulses throughout the body.
Erections occur in response to tactile, olfactory, and visual stimuli. The ability to achieve and maintain a full erection depends not only on the penile portion of the process but also on the status of the peripheral nerves, the integrity of the vascular supply, and biochemical events within the corpora. The autonomic nervous system is involved in erection, orgasm, and tumescence. The parasympathetic nervous system is primarily involved in sustaining and maintaining an erection, which is derived from S2-S4 nerve roots.
Instead of the hesitation with which he had accosted the cardinal a quarter of an hour before, there might be read in the eyes of the young king that will against which a struggle might be maintained, and which might be crushed by its own impotence, but which, at least, would preserve, like a wound in the depth of the heart, the remembrance of its defeat.
Erections are initiated and maintained via integration of afferent inputs in the supra sacral regions of the central nervous system. Regions of the brain cited to have key roles in the integration of signals include the medial amygdala, MPOA, periaqueductal gray matter, paraventricular nucleus (PVN), and ventral tegmentum among others (16). Studies in animal models, particularly in rats, have been paramount in identifying these key areas of signal integration and control. Electrostimulation of the MPOA, PVN and hippocampus lead to erection and lesions in these areas may prevent erection (17). Marson et al. injected labeled pseudorabies virus into rat corpora cavernosa and traced them to neurons in the spinal cord, brain stem and hypothalamus (18). Stimulation of the rat dorsal nerve led to increased firing in the MPOA not found elsewhere (19). Axonal tracing in animals have shows direct projections from the hypothalamus to the lumbosacral autonomic erection centers. Oxytocin and vasopressin have been identified as central neurotransmitters within the hypothalamic nuclei and may have a role in penile erection (17). These signaling studies identifying key areas of erectile response integration may explain how ED is associated with cerebrovascular accident (CVA), Parkinson’s, epilepsy and MS.
PDE5i for ED in patients with MS can be considered as reasonably effective and safe. Fowler et al. performed a randomized, multicenter, double-blind, flexible dose trial with open label extensions comparing sildenafil to placebo (75). A nearly 4-fold increase in effective erections was noted in the treatment arm, 96% vs. 24%. Sexual satisfaction and overall satisfaction were also improved in the treatment group based on IIEF scores, and quality of life assessments. Lombardi et al. evaluated tadalafil use in men with MS (71). Seventy eight percent of the men responded with improved erections, better quality of life with regards to sexual function, partner relationship and family life. Just less than half the men who responded to the tadalafil did so at the lower dosage of 10 mg. Subjects in either studies did not have any significant adverse side effects beyond flushing, and headache with PDE5i use.
Knowing about your history of ED will help your health provider learn if your problems are because of your desire for sex, erection function, ejaculation, or orgasm (climax). Some of these questions may seem private or even embarrassing. However, be assured that your doctor is a professional and your honest answers will help find the cause and best treatment for you.