Type 2 Diabetes May Be Linked To Erectile Dysfunction

January 14, 2021

A new study suggests that type 2 diabetes may be linked to erectile dysfunction.

Researchers reveal in a study published today (December 20) in the American Journal of Human Genetics that people with genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop erectile dysfunction (ED) than those without these risk factors.

Researchers analyzed data collected in three different databases: the UK Biobank, the Estonian Genome Centre of the University of Tartu cohort, and the Partners Healthcare Biobank. The study involved more than 220,000 men, about 6,000 of whom suffered from erectile dysfunction.

In the study, the researchers wanted to see what conditions or genetic traits might predispose a person to ED. they looked at a bunch of genetic variations – different flavors of genes – that previous groups had identified as risk factors for the development of conditions such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, all of which have also been linked to ED.

However, finding genes that may increase a person’s risk of developing these diseases is far from simple. For example, previous studies have identified about 100 genetic variants that have been linked only to type 2 diabetes. So, for each disease, researchers calculate a “genetic risk factor score” based on the number of gene variants that a person has that increase risk.

The researchers then looked to see if there was any link between a person’s genetic risk factor score and ED. They found that men with an ED were more likely to have type 2 diabetes and had a high risk factor score compared to men without an ED. However, the researchers did not find a strong link between ED and the risk factor scores for any of the other conditions they looked at.

The study showed that “a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes…. also tend to be that you have [ED],” said co-senior author Anna Murray, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, and the findings were strong enough, according to Murray, to suggest a causal relationship between the two conditions.

It makes “good biological sense,” Murray added. While the conditions may seem unrelated on the surface, type 2 diabetes can lead to nerve damage and problems with blood vessels. The latter, in particular, is important for maintaining an erection, Murray told Live Science.

As for why they didn’t see a link between ED and higher BMI or cardiovascular disease, Murray said she thinks researchers either needed a larger sample size of people or were “unlucky” that they didn’t. For example, in the literature, “there is strong evidence that there is an increase in BMI itself that causes erectile dysfunction,” she said.

Dr. Caroline Messer, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who wasn’t involved in the study, also found the findings compelling. She said, “I would buy that it’s a cause-and-effect relationship.” She noted that there are many ways that ED and type 2 diabetes may be connected, including through changes in the brain or through the body’s blood vessels.

Even so, knowing that ED may have a genetic basis that links to type 2 diabetes isn’t really going to “change the way I’m going to treat my patients,” Messer said.

However, what makes the findings particularly interesting is that, in general, risk factors for ED are thought to be things that happen at the same time as diabetes, such as high blood pressure or elevated body mass index (BMI) – in other words, ED is the result of conditions that people have in addition to diabetes – not diabetes itself, Messer told Live Science.The new findings could change that.

“We don’t have direct evidence that by curing type 2 diabetes, you’ll cure erectile dysfunction,” Murray said. But based on this study, “you would make that assumption.” She hopes that in the future larger studies will look at this association, and that these studies will lead to treatments.

Diet and exercise can really help manage type 2 diabetes, she notes, so they may also affect erectile dysfunction. There are “a lot of reasons to want to cure type 2 diabetes,” says Murray.” But this is an added incentive.”

Murray points out that while the study primarily included people of British descent, the findings may apply to all people of European background. However, it is unclear whether the study applies to people around the world. More research is needed to apply the findings more widely.