Older Americans, particularly those whose lives are relatively sedentary apart from occasional sexual intercourse, should be alert for signs of possible heart problems that tend to show up first in the bedroom.
Interviewed by the Washington Post a couple of weeks after the FDA approved a drug to treat the most common form of female sexual dysfunction, cardiologist Laxmi Mehta, M.D., identified five “bedroom symptoms” of possible heart disease.
Of those five symptoms, one in particular is familiar to regular followers of our blog. That symptom, of course, is erectile dysfunction, which more often than not indicates insufficient blood flow to the penis. And if your penis isn’t getting enough blood, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the cause of this vascular insufficiency may in time affect the larger blood vessels that supply your heart and brain.
Consult Your Doctor
For that reason, it’s a good idea to have your physician check out your cardiovascular health in the wake of persistent difficulty in getting and keeping an erection. It may be that your erection problems stem from some other cause altogether, but it’s better to be safe rather than sorry. More about the link between heart disease and impotence a bit later.
Other symptoms of possible heart problems that often show up in the bedroom include snoring, chest pains during intercourse, and heart palpitations when at rest. These three symptoms can show up in both men and women and should be taken seriously.
Dr. Mehta, who specializes in cardiovascular medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that hot flashes can be a sign that a woman is at increased risk of heart trouble. One of the most widespread symptoms of menopause, hot flashes may indicate that a woman is no longer producing estrogen, a hormone that tends to protect the heart. When estrogen production stops or drops precipitously, a woman’s risk of a heart attack becomes virtually the same as that of a man.
According to a couple of studies published in early 2015, women who begin to experience hot flashes at a younger age than usual are at an increased risk of heart attack, as are those whose hot flashes come at more frequent intervals. Both of these symptoms tend to be associated with less effective endothelial function.
The endothelium is a thin layer of cells lining the inside walls of blood vessels. Endothelial dysfunction can lead to an acceleration or worsening of atherosclerosis, a disease of the arteries marked by a buildup of fatty plaques on artery walls.
At a March 2015 press briefing in advance of the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology, Rebecca C. Thurston, Ph.D., a member of the research team for both studies, said their findings could help identify women early in midlife who are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Snoring can also be a warning sign of heart problems. At its most superficial level, it’s an annoyance to those who sleep with you. But it can also be an indicator of more serious problems. Eye-opening research conducted by otolaryngologists at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital indicate that those who snore regularly tend to have increased thickening of the walls of the carotid arteries. And although the researchers’ study looked specifically at the carotid arteries, which carry blood to the brain, thickening of one artery is generally interpreted as a sign of atherosclerosis, meaning similar damage is likely to be found in arteries throughout the body.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Snoring can also be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, a condition in which sleepers stop breathing briefly multiple times during the sleep cycle. Although sleep apnea occurs in both men and women, it is considerably more common in men. It is estimated that one in every five adults suffers from some form of sleep apnea.
Donna Arnett, Ph.D., former president of the American Heart Association, said the scientific evidence shows a strong relationship between sleep apnea and hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, the adverse effects of OSA can be minimized through the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. This form of treatment involves wearing a face mask through which constant air pressure is maintained during sleeping hours.
The bedroom is the setting in which heart palpitations are most likely to be detected. Because you are at rest, you are more likely to notice heart rhythms and behavior that are out of the ordinary. Palpitations can take a variety of forms, according to Dr. Mehta. She told the Washington Post: “I have a lot of patients — predominantly women, but men too — who complain that they feel fine, except when they lie down and want to go to bed and they’re in a resting state and they notice their heart racing or skipping or pounding or flip-flopping.”
Such palpitations may be purely benign, particularly if they happen rarely and can be attributed to a bit of exertion before retiring or perhaps too much caffeine. However, if the palpitations persist and are accompanied by difficulty breathing, feeling faint, or chest pains, it’s time to get things checked out by your family doctor.
Chest pain during sexual intercourse is perhaps the most serious — and most urgent — sign of cardiac problems. For those with a history of heart problems, it is prudent to talk to your doctor about whether you should be engaging in intercourse at all. Cardiologists often advise against strenuous sexual activity for those with a weak heart muscle, certain abnormal heart rhythms, a recent heart attack, advanced heart failure (characterized by shortness of breath at rest), or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
The imminent introduction of Addyi, a prescription drug designed to increase sexual desire in women, prompted this warning from Dr. Mehta: “If women are going from no sex life and they’re trying to take this medication and maybe increase their sex life . . . [and] they note chest discomfort, they need to be talking to their physician.”
ED as an Early Warning Sign
Which brings us back to the link between erection problems and cardiovascular disease. For years now, health professionals have pointed out that, however unwelcome they may be, erection problems can often offer an early warning of future cardiovascular problems. In cases where a man’s symptoms of impotence can be traced to atherosclerosis or endothelial dysfunction, he often can improve erectile function and prevent more serious cardiovascular disease by taking steps to reverse whatever damage has occurred. Even if the erection problems are too far advanced to be reversed, behavior modification can at least reduce his risk of a future heart attack or stroke.
Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.