Erectile dysfunction becomes more common with age, but it can affect young males. Treatments can be effective for people of all ages.
Erectile dysfunction (ED), once called impotence, occurs when the penis does not receive enough blood to produce an erection for satisfactory intercourse.
ED is very common — most males experience difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection at some point. According to some estimates, ED affects 30 million males in the United States alone.
This article looks at how aging affects ED. We also explore the risk factors, causes, and treatments.
Many people think of erectile problems as an older adult’s issue, but they can affect younger males, as well.
According to some estimates, ED affects 8% of males aged 20–29 years and 11% of those aged 30–39 years.
The data also suggest that the number of people under 40 seeking medical attention for ED is increasing.
Many factors that contribute to ED can occur at any age. These include physical and emotional factors — both of which are important for sexual activity.
Some contributing factors include:
- having anxiety, depression, or feelings of shame or guilt about sexual activity
- experiencing significant stress, about sex or something else
- drinking alcohol in excess
- using recreational drugs
- having overweight or obesity
- having a lack of physical activity
- using workout supplements, testosterone boosters, or over-the-counter erectile aids
At any age, making adjustments such as lowering levels of stress and exercising more frequently can help improve erectile problems and boost overall health.
Age is a main risk factor for ED. According to some estimates, males have a 40% chance of having some form of ED by their 40s. The risk then increases about 10% per decade.
While people are more likely to develop ED as they get older, aging does not directly cause it. ED is not a normal part of aging — some males are sexually active into their 80s.
However, as people get older, they are more likely to develop medical conditions that increase the risk of ED. These include:
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure, or hypertension
- a buildup of plaque in the arteries, called atherosclerosis
- low testosterone levels, or hypogonadism
In fact, diabetes and atherosclerosis are the two most common medical problems that cause ED.
Meanwhile, erectile problems can be a side effect of medications that people are more likely to take as they get older, such as blood pressure medications, tranquilizers, and ulcer medications.
These vary widely and can include psychological, neurological, and lifestyle-related factors. ED can also be a side effect of some medications.
Stress, anxiety, and lifestyle factors can contribute to ED at any age, while physical factors are more likely to play a role for older adults.
Physical causes include conditions that affect the vascular system, the nervous system, or the hormone system. Some of these causes include:
- mental health issues, such as stress and anxiety
- sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea
- high blood pressure
- heart or blood vessel disease
- chronic kidney disease
- Peyronie’s disease, or penile curvature
- penile abnormalities, such as those affecting the foreskin
- injury to the penis, spinal cord, prostate, bladder, or pelvis
In many cases, ED is caused by factors such as an unhealthful diet, a high level of stress, a lack of exercise, and smoking. By addressing these issues, people can often improve or resolve their ED symptoms.
However, even if a person suspects that they know the cause of their ED, they should still see a doctor for a diagnosis. This is because ED can be an early sign of some other medical problems.
The main definition of ED is trouble getting or maintaining an erection that is firm enough or lasts long enough for intercourse.
A person with ED may:
- be able to get an erection, but not every time they want to
- have erections that do not last as long as desired
- be unable to have an erection
It is important to note that occasional trouble with erections is common for males.
If these issues happen regularly or are getting progressively worse, however, it can signal ED, and the person may benefit from treatment.
Physical complications of ED are generally mild. However, ED may be a symptom of a more serious health problem, such as heart disease.
Meanwhile, the emotional effects of ED can be significant. People may experience:
- stress or anxiety about sexual activity
- low self-esteem
- emotional distress
- relationship problems
Younger adults may find ED particularly uncomfortable to manage or talk about, due to the misconception that it only affects older people. In actuality, ED is relatively common in younger males.
The best approach varies from person to person — some find that changing lifestyle factors is enough to resolve their ED, while others require professional treatment, such as medication.
When treating ED, a doctor or another medical professional may suggest the following:
These can reduce many factors linked with ED. A person might benefit from:
- quitting smoking
- drinking less alcohol
- maintaining a healthful weight
- getting regular exercise
- following a healthful diet
- improving the quality and amount of sleep
If a person feels that anxiety, stress, depression, or relationship problems are interfering with daily life — including sex — talking to a mental health professional can help.
A doctor may prescribe medication that stimulates blood flow to the penis, helping to achieve an erection.
There are many ED drugs available, and each can cause side effects. Common options include:
- sildenafil (Viagra)
- avanafil (Stendra)
- tadalafil (Cialis)
Changes to current medications
If a doctor determines that ED is a side effect of an ongoing medication, they may recommend switching medications or changing the dosage.
Do not make any changes, however, without talking to a doctor first.
Devices to help with an erection
Vacuum devices are mechanical pumps that create an erection by drawing blood into the penis.
ED rings are bands that go around the base of the penis to keep blood in it, helping maintain an erection.
Natural remedies for ED are increasingly available over the counter. But little, if any, scientific evidence suggests that they work.
Also, some remedies can produce side effects or react negatively with medications. Before trying any over-the-counter treatment, it is important to consult a doctor.
In addition, these natural remedies and supplements may actually worsen erectile function in the long term, even if help in the short term.
It is also worth noting that they work differently from ED medications such as Viagra and Cialis, which do not affect function beyond the time that the medication is in effect.
For many people, lifestyle changes improve or resolve ED symptoms.
ED becomes more of a risk with age, but it is relatively common in younger males. Stress, anxiety, and factors such as stress and smoking can contribute to ED at any age, while physical factors, such as high blood pressure, are more likely to contribute to ED in older adults.
As a result, ED may be more straightforward to treat in younger adults, though treatments can be effective at any age.