A recent Italian study of men with both established coronary artery disease and erectile dysfunction (ED) revealed that the ED had manifested itself, on average, three years before the appearance of classic coronary symptoms such as angina.
This means that ED can serve in many cases as an early warning that all may not be well with the patient's cardiovascular system.
Many doctors are now starting to use the "Viagra visit" by a patient seeking a prescription for a PDE5 medication to treat ED as the signal to begin screening the patient for more pervasive cardiovascular disease.
Because of the fairly long lapse of time between erectile problems and more serious cardiac manifestations, there is time enough for many men to begin counteracting their cardiac risks - by eating healthier, getting more exercise and committing to other heart-healthy activities - when they begin treating their ED.
It can be difficult to motivate many men with abstract discussions about health problems that they may be headed for in five or 10 years, but the promise of improved erections is often a great motivator of better health behaviors.
Another study, reported earlier this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that in a sample of 4,000 men between the ages of 40 and 90 evaluated by their primary care physicians, the men with ED had a 50 percent higher chance of also having diabetes or metabolic syndrome, both conditions strongly associated with cardiovascular disease.
These studies reflect a dramatic change in thinking about ED as a health issue. Once perceived as a condition rooted in psychological conflict or hormone deficiency, ED is now being viewed as a useful window on cardiovascular health.