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Cocaine: A Heart Attack in Powder Form

People who use cocaine have stiffer arteries, higher blood pressure, and thicker heart wall muscles than non-users

--by Alexia Severson

The Gist

Other than the obvious risks of using cocaine recreationally, such as dependency and overdose, people who regularly use cocaine also put themselves at a greater risk for heart attacks, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2012.

Australian researchers measured the effects of cocaine on 20 otherwise healthy adults who chronically used the drug and found that, compared with 20 non-users, cocaine users had higher rates of multiple factors associated with the risk of heart attack and stroke. This included a 30 to 35 percent increase in aortic stiffening, higher systolic blood pressure, and an 18 percent greater thickening of the heart’s left ventricle wall.

According to Rehab International, one in four Americans between the ages of 26 and 34 admit to using cocaine at some point in their lives, and each year, 15,000 Americans die due to cocaine use and the complications that come with it.

The Expert Take

Alarmed by a surge in cocaine-related incidents at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, Australian researchers studied the incidence of cardiovascular abnormalities in apparently healthy cocaine users. They found that the combined effects of greater blood clotting, increased heart stress, and more blood vessel constriction put users at high risk of a spontaneous heart attack.

“It’s so sad,” said Gemma Figtree, an associate professor of medicine at Sydney Medical School and lead study author. “We are repeatedly seeing young, otherwise fit individuals suffering massive heart attacks related to cocaine use. Despite being well-educated professionals, they have no knowledge of the health consequences of regularly using cocaine.”

Figtree and her team observed higher systolic blood pressure and increased arterial stiffness in cocaine users, along with heart wall thickening.

“Stiffer vessels are known to be associated with elevated systolic blood pressure,” Figtree said. “As a result, the heart is required to work harder, and its walls become hypertrophied, or thicker.”

In order to find out how repeated social cocaine use causes blood vessels to stiffen, researchers are investigating a signaling pathway that might cause such a response. However, further research is required.

Source and Method

For this study, Figtree and her colleagues recruited 17 men and three women with an average age of 37 who used cocaine recreationally. Participants reported using cocaine at least once a month for the past year. Subjects completed questionnaires about their drug use, cardiovascular risk, and socioeconomic status.

At least 48 hours after their last cocaine use, participants had their blood pressure taken and then underwent cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess heart mass and levels of heart and aortic functioning. Researchers performed direct comparisons with similar aged non-users, taking into account any history of diabetes, smoking, and other drug use.

The Takeaway

This study emphasizes the need for education about the short- and long-term effects of cocaine use to help prevent heart attack and stroke, Figtree said.

It’s also important to realize that you don’t have to be an addict to suffer the consequences of using cocaine recreationally. Even small amounts can leave you vulnerable to the many dangers associated with using the drug.

Besides the risk of a heart attack, other side-effects include: feelings of depression, anxiety, abnormal risk-taking, addiction, damage to the lungs, and respiratory complications and death due to an overdose.

Other Research

This study is the first to document persistent hypertension and vascular stiffness in cocaine users, long after the acute effects have worn off. Previous studies have shown the immediate effects of cocaine on the heart, primarily among cocaine addicts, not social users. Unlike previous studies, Figtree and her colleagues found no evidence of earlier silent heart attacks among cocaine users.

Numerous studies have been done on the effects of cocaine, but sources and methods vary greatly. One study published in Psychopharmacology in 2012 observed domain-specific cognitive deficits due to cocaine use with experimental groups of monkeys, while another 2012 study published in Hormones and Behavior examined the effects of a woman’s menstrual cycle on cocaine self-administration and how it affects dependence and relapse rates.

Other studies, such as the one published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in 2004, have also observed the consequences for mothers who used cocaine while pregnant and the effects it can have on their children. This particular study found that while prenatal cocaine exposure does cause a developmental disadvantage in the visual motor domain of a child, environmental factors also play a role in child development and cognitive outcomes.

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Tags: Drugs , Latest Studies & Research , Awareness

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