When you see those strangely light-hearted commercials for Viagra and Cialis, it's often a grey-haired, distinguished gentleman smiling back at his wife from across the kitchen. But those ads may not be accurate based on a new study that found that more and more young men are being diagnosed with erectile dysfunction (ED).

Culturally, erectile dysfunction has become almost expected in older men. Statistically, there is a prevalence of ED in men over the age of 40. The condition leaves men unable to achieve or sustain an erection suitable for intercourse, and may also be an indication of a bigger, perhaps heart or blood flow, problem.

"ED has gradually acquired an important role as a mirror of men's overall health, assuming major relevance in the cardiovascular field," said researchers.

However, a new study from Dr. Poalo Capogrosso of the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Italy and his team of researchers points out that acceptance of ED as an "old man's problem" has led to there being little to no research on ED in young men. Previous studies of ED in younger men focused primarily on mental health and psychological factors contributing to the problem. This new study sought to change that.

"Erectile function, in general, is a marker for overall cardiovascular function - this is the first research showing evidence of severe erectile dysfunction in a population of men 40 years of age or younger," stated Irwin Goldstein, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Sexual Medicine. "Clinically, when younger patients have presented with erectile dysfunction, we have in the past had a bias that their ED was primarily psychologic-based and vascular testing was not needed. We now need to consider regularly assessing the integrity of arterial inflow in young patients - identifying arterial pathology in such patients may be very relevant to their overall long-term health."

Capogrosso's team of researchers started with basic data and built up from there. First, they chose clinical data from 439 consecutive patients of all ages. One-hundred-and-fourteen of them were aged 40 years or younger. Of those patients, the younger ones were more physically fit and suffered from less medical conditions than the older patients.

Researchers then sought to assess the characteristics of those who were 40 years of younger and seeking help for new onset ED as their primary sexual disorder. They measured their results against those who fell into the older age category.

The findings were surprising. One in four patients seeking help for new onset ED was younger than age 40. Almost half of the younger patients who sought help suffered from severe ED comparable to that of older patients. And, much like ED in older men, its diagnosis in younger men was often an indicator of a larger health problem. Among younger patients, factors like smoking and illicit drug use did have bearing on their ED diagnosis, causing researchers to believe that there may be a link between ED and cigarette or drug use.

"These findings, taken together with those of other studies showing the importance of erectile dysfunction as a potential "sentinel marker" of major diseases, outline the importance of taking a comprehensive medical and sexual history and to perform a thorough physical examination in all men with erectile dysfunction, irrespective of their age," said Capogrosso.

While these findings are a great start, the researchers said that additional studies in larger population-based samples would be beneficial in deriving more general conclusions about ED in younger men.

Source: Capogrosso, P. Colicchia, M. One Patient Out of Four with Newly Diagnosed Erectile Dysfunction Is a Young Man-Worrisome Picture from the Everyday Clinical Practice. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2013.