WASHINGTON — Few men suffering from impotence admit that they have used Viagra, despite wide publicity about the best-selling drug, according to a new study.
While 26% of men over 45 suffer from moderate or severe impotence, fewer than 5% of those responding to a mail survey by AARP said that they had used Viagra or any other aid to help produce erections.
More than 5 million Viagra prescriptions were sold during the first six months the medication was on the market last year, so the survey answers surprised researchers. "Maybe it means a few men are taking a lot of pills," John McKinlay, an epidemiologist at the New England Research Institute, told a news conference Tuesday at AARP headquarters here. McKinlay helped design the survey for AARP's Modern Maturity magazine.
But Dr. Stanley Korenman, professor of medicine and endocrinology at the UCLA School of Medicine, suggested instead: "Men are lying. Why tell anybody about it? men think. It is a decrease in your macho to use anything to get an erection."
Sex is not the only area of male secrecy, Korenman said. "Men lie like crazy about their health."
Impotence will be a major problem as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age and beyond, researchers believe. There will be a million new cases a year of impotence or other erectile dysfunction among boomer men, McKinlay said. Boomers belong to the biggest generation in American history, those 76 million Americans born from 1946 through 1964.
For the baby boomers, "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" was a popular refrain of the 1960s. As they aged, marijuana gave way to aspirin as the drug of choice for many, and their once-revolutionary rock music became the main staple of familiar Golden Oldies stations.
But sex is still a hot topic, with baby boomer women looking forward to maintaining satisfying sex lives as they age, the study suggested. Boomer women have much different attitudes about sex from their mothers'. The boomer age group is much more likely than the previous generation to approve of sex outside marriage, oral sex and masturbation, the survey noted.
While boomer women are likely to want to maintain active sex lives, they will face difficulties as men of their own age suffer health problems leading to impotence. And because women live an average of six years longer then men, they will face a rapidly narrowing selection of likely sex partners: at age 65 and over, there are 67 men for every 100 women.
"The 'partner gap' is one of the most obvious factors affecting sexual activity," AARP said in its summary of findings from the survey of 1,384 people in March. In the group ranging in age from 45 to 59, about 80% of those surveyed had sexual partners. But among people 75 and over, 58% of the men had sexual partners, while only 21% of women did.
As a dramatic new solution for the problem of impotence, Viagra enjoyed the second fastest start of any new drug. (Celebrex, an anti-arthritis medication, was the fastest, selling nearly 7 million prescriptions since its introduction in January.)
Pfizer, the manufacturer of Viagra, estimates that the average prescription is about eight pills a month.
"We target our [marketing] efforts at couples," said spokeswoman Mariann Caprino. "We encourage the participation of a partner. Many men see a physician at the urging of their partners."
Despite these efforts, male shyness or reluctance to discuss problems is still a major barrier to dealing with impotence.
"Probably a significant number of people who feel they do have trouble with erectile function are hesitant to bring it to the attention of their doctors," said Dr. Charles Shapiro, a urologist at Kaiser Permanente's Los Angeles medical center. "They don't know how to ask."
Among Shapiro's patients who have prostate or urological problems, perhaps a third to a half will ask him about sexual functioning or Viagra, he said. "Many of them will just sort of throw it in at the end of an evaluation. There is hesitancy on the part of many people to discuss sexuality with their doctors."
The AARP study will be featured in Modern Maturity's September-October issue, with a cover line reading "Great Sex" and a picture of Susan Sarandon in a fetching, low-cut clinging sweater. She is billed in a magazine feature as one of the 50 "sexiest people over 50."
The attempt to study sexuality among the boomers as they age is part of a campaign by the AARP to recast its image. With 3 million boomers becoming eligible to join the organization every year as they turn 50, the AARP has banned the words "American Assn. of Retired Persons" from its name and now uses only the initials. And, at the close of the news conference filled with sex talk at AARP headquarters, the audio system blared forth a classic James Brown hit from the boomer era: "I Feel Good."