In a well-known Oscar Wilde novel, Dorian Gray retains his youthful good looks while his portrait progressively shows the hideous effects of a wantonly dissolute lifestyle.
Abusers of “speed,” “ice,” or other amphetamines might take note: Their outsides might look fine, but their cardiovascular systems show greater aging than the arteries of those smoking tobacco or using the heroin substitute methadone, according to a new study.
An investigative team led by Dr. Stuart Reece, a clinical associate professor at the University of Western Australia, published their findings February 9 in the online journal Heart Asia.
The study included more than 700 Australian participants in their 30s and 40s.
Using radial arterial pulse tonometry, researchers measured the stiffness of participants’ arteries, which is a sign of aging.
Researchers compared 55 amphetamine-exposed patients with 107 tobacco smokers, 483 nonsmokers, and 68 methadone patients who visited a substance misuse clinic from 2006 to 2011.
For each participant, they determined a cardiovascular-biological age (VA).
The research team said the findings demonstrate that “recurrent habitual amphetamine abuse ages the cardiovasculature, and likely the whole organism generally,” according to a news release.
They added that the new study is further evidence of the importance of tackling the “global stimulant epidemic.”
Unclear if damage is reversible
“We were expecting these results,” Reece said in an interview with Healthline. “Amphetamines are known to damage the cardiovascular system in both short- and long-term ways.”
Stimulant abuse is associated with stroke, aneurysms, and cardiac arrhythmias, among other problems.
Reece said this was the first time hardening of the arteries was measured.
“Cardiovascular aging is a surrogate measure for the whole organism,” he said.
The researchers could not say if this damage is reversible.
Clinicians out in the field look at this issue up close.
Amphetamines “are both prescribed and abused,” said Dr. Christopher Bull Granger, professor of medicine, professor in the school of nursing, and member of the Duke Clinical Research Institute in North Carolina. “This is a real issue,” he told Healthline.
These drugs “may be good for [students’] academic performance, but there are real risks,” he said.
Amphetamines are stimulants, hence their popularity as study aids. They can cause effects such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and aneurysm rupture.
Since the new study was observational, it didn’t establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between amphetamine use and cardiovascular aging.
It also didn’t provide information on the dose of amphetamines that may prematurely age the heart.
Ninety-four percent of the study participants who used amphetamines had done so in the week prior to testing. The effects of amphetamine exposure persisted after adjustment for all known cardiovascular risk factors.
For Reece, the study is one part of a larger picture: The quest to understand — and reverse — aging.
“We’ve measured arterial stiffness,” he said. “We need to look at molecular levels of aging.”
Reversing aging is one of the Holy Grails of modern medicine, and each new discovery is important.
Granger, who is also a spokesman for the American Heart Association, paints a picture of stimulant drug use.
“Amphetamine use can be harmful to the heart, particularly for patients who have underlying risk factors,” he said.
“Generally drugs that stimulate the nervous system, including the adrenal glands, can be harmful. They directly administer a toxin to the heart, they overstimulate it, and wear it out.
“What’s more,” he added, “they contribute to risk factors like high blood pressure.”
“As a person gets older, overstimulation is bad for the heart,” Granger explained. “Some drugs, like cocaine, can cause a heart attack or increase other risk factors and contribute to cardiac arrhythmia.”
Risks of other stimulant drugs
Other drugs such as Adderall also present a potential danger.
Adderall contains a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, which are central nervous system stimulants that affect chemicals in the brain and nerves that contribute to hyperactivity and impulse control.
It can cause side effects other than withdrawal or crashing. Taking Adderall in high doses is called chronic intoxication and can cause feelings of euphoria and excitement. This can lead to addiction.
Other side effects of taking the drug at a high dosage include a skin condition, insomnia, hyperactivity, irritability, and changes in personality.
Granger notes that clinicians don’t have measurable proof that Adderall is harmful. “It’s relatively safe,” he said, “but there’s still some risk.”
Those risks increase when the drug is overused, he said.
Other drugs, like asthma drugs used as inhalers, are stimulants as well, Granger said. “There have been reports that asthma drugs may increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmia.
“Drugs that stimulate the adrenals are a big public health issue,” he said, urging caution and awareness of risks.
But the picture is not entirely bleak. There are some ways “we can reverse aging,” Reece said.
The most significant and meaningful way of undoing arterial damage is with plenty of exercise — better than any pill, according to Reece.
Research shows that drugs make people old [and] fat," he said.
Sort of like Dorian Gray.