Study: Cocaine Increases Long-Term Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke

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Not just while high

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PROBLEM: In the moment, cocaine produces its stimulating cardiovascular effects by constricting blood vessels while increasing heart rate and blood pressure. This high-inducing physiology is also why the drug's been known to cause heart attacks in users -- but only while they're actually under the influence.

METHODOLOGY: This Australian study looked at the MRIs of 20 "recreational" users -- who reported having used cocaine at least once a month for the past year -- as compared to 20 non-users. The users, 17 men and 3 women, were otherwise healthy and had an average age of 37.

RESULTS: The users showed an increase in aortic stiffening of 30 to 35 percent, higher systolic blood pressure, and an 18 percent greater thickness of the heart's left ventricle wall -- all symptoms associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

CONCLUSION: The persistent hypertension and vascular stiffness seen in users, according to lead researcher Gemma Figtree, makes cocaine "the perfect heart attack drug."

IMPLICATION: While this study didn't look at the actual incidences of heart attacks among cocaine users, the observed effects are known contributors to an increased risk of heart disease. Even though Figtree expressed great distress over cocaine users who, "despite being well-educated professionals ... have no knowledge of the health consequences of regularly using cocaine," most people are probably aware of the risks associated. The real significance here is that even though it may seem like recreational users are getting away with something, this study is the first to document worrisome long-term effects of cocaine use on the heart.

The full study, "Cardiovascular Impact of Cocaine In Regular Asymptomatic Users Assessed By Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Imaging" was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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