Recreational cocaine use linked to conditions that cause heart attack

November 05, 2012

People who regularly use cocaine socially have stiffer arteries, higher blood pressure and thicker heart wall muscle than non-users, according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012.

Australian researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the effects of cocaine in 20 otherwise healthy adults who chronically used the illegal substance. Compared with 20 non-users, cocaine users had higher rates of multiple factors associated with higher risks of heart attack and stroke:"It's so sad," said Gemma Figtree, M.B.B.S., D.Phil., lead researcher of the study. "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."

"It's the perfect heart attack drug," she said.

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, said Figtree, an associate professor of medicine at Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney in Australia.

A surge of cocaine-related infarcts at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital led the team to study the incidence of cardiovascular abnormalities in apparently healthy, regular cocaine users.

Researchers recruited recreational cocaine users (17 men, 3 women, average age 37) who reported using cocaine at least once a month for the last year. They completed questionnaires about their drug use, cardiovascular risk factors and socioeconomic status. At least 48 hours after their last cocaine use, volunteers had their blood pressure taken and then underwent cardiac MRIs to assess heart mass and levels of heart and aortic functioning. Researchers performed direct comparisons with similar aged non-users, taking into account history of diabetes, smoking and other drug use.

In the study, investigators observed higher systolic blood pressure and increased arterial stiffness, in association with heart wall thickening.

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

Researchers didn't find evidence of earlier silent heart attacks among cocaine users, contrary to previous studies.

The 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, and primarily among cocaine addicts -- not social users.

Although it is currently unclear how repeated social cocaine use causes blood vessels to stiffen, researchers are investigating a signaling pathway that might be activated to cause such a response.

The study outcomes underscore the need for education about the short- and long-term effects of cocaine use to help prevent heart attack and stroke, Figtree said.
-end-
Co-authors are Ravinay Bhindi, M.B.B.S., Ph.D.; Stefan Buchholz, M.B.B.S.; Shane Darke, Ph.D.; Stuart Grieve, M.B.B.S., D.Phil.; Sharlene Kaye, Ph.D.; and Rebecca Kozor, M.B.B.S.

Author disclosures are on the abstract.

The North Shore Heart Research Foundation funded the study.

Follow news from The American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012 via Twitter: @HeartNews.

Statements and conclusions of study authors that are presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect association policy or position. The association makes no representation or warranty as to their accuracy or reliability. The association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific association programs and events. The association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and device corporations are available at heart.org/corporatefunding.

Note: This abstract will be presented in Kentia Hall.

All downloadable video/audio interviews, B-roll, animation and images related to this news release are on the right column of the release link at http://newsroom.heart.org/pr/aha/_prv-recreational-cocaine-use-linked-239564.aspx.

Video clips with researchers/authors of studies will be added to the release links after embargo.

General B-roll and Photos

American Heart Association

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