Erectile dysfunction may be a cause of trouble in the bedroom, but it’s also a troubling red flag for "silent" heart disease.

Australian researchers wrote in a paper published Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine that, based on their study, even minor problems with erections mean that a man is at greater risk for heart problems and premature death.

The team looked at questionnaire data on health and lifestyle habits from 2006-2009 for 95,038 men that participated in Australia’s 45 and Up Study, and connected it to national data on hospital admissions and deaths up to December 2010. Among the study group, there were 7,855 hospital admissions for cardiovascular complaints and 2,304 deaths.

Once they ran the numbers, the researchers found that "the risks of future heart disease and premature death increased steadily with severity of erectile dysfunction, both in men with and without a history of cardiovascular disease," lead author Emily Banks said in a statement Tuesday.

Around one in five men age 40 or above suffer from either moderate or severe erectile dysfunction, according to the researchers.

"These results tell us that every man who is suffering from any degree of erectile dysfunction should be seeking medical assistance as early as possible and also insisting on a heart health check by their [doctor] at the same time," coauthor and Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Health Director Rob Grenfell said.

Other researchers have explored the link between erection difficulties and heart trouble. A meta-analysis published last September in the journal PLoS ONE looked at data for 22,586 subjects, and found that diabetic men with erectile dysfunction were at a greater risk for heart disease than diabetic men without erectile dysfunction.

Some studies show that erectile dysfunction drugs – which were themselves developed to treat high blood pressure and the heart condition angina, then repurposed for their stiffening side effects – may help somewhat, even though they carry the risk of sudden cardiac events.

In a 2011 paper in the journal Experimental and Clinical Cardiology, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University reviewed a wealth of studies showing how impotence treatments like Viagra can be used to treat heart problems. Viagra has been shown to limit the damage wrought by heart attacks in experiments with mice, rabbits and rats. The anti-impotence drug has also been shown to help heart attack patients recover, and help protect the brain against strokes and other neurodegenerative diseases, the authors said.

“Future carefully controlled clinical trials would hopefully expedite their expanding therapeutic use in patients with cardiovascular disease,” the VCU team wrote.

SOURCE: Banks et al. “Erectile Dysfunction Severity as a Risk Marker for Cardiovascular Disease Hospitalisation and All-Cause Mortality: A Prospective Cohort Study.” PLoS Medicine published online 29 January 2013.