Even ‘Social’ Cocaine Users Develop Heart Problems
Cocaine is the addictive stimulant drug known for its ability to seriously harm the health of both short- and long-term users. One of the forms of harm firmly associated with cocaine use is the development of serious problems in the cardiovascular system, which includes both the heart and the arteries and veins that facilitate blood flow throughout the brain and body. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from three Australian institutions sought to determine if the damaging cardiovascular effects of cocaine use appear in regular users who don’t have an addiction to the drug. These researchers concluded that non-addicted cocaine users do indeed have increased risks for developing serious heart and blood vessel problems before reaching the age of 40.
Cocaine Use and Cocaine Addiction
When cocaine travels through the bloodstream and enters the brain, it triggers a sharp increase in the chemical responsible for producing the brain’s pleasure response. If a cocaine user takes the drug often enough, repeated changes in the levels of this chemical can lead to physical cocaine dependence and the onset of the additional behavioral and physical alterations that herald the arrival of cocaine addiction. However, not all cocaine users take the drug often enough to bring about dependence and addiction. Instead, they establish a less frequent pattern of use that may lead to diagnosable problems with non-dependent cocaine abuse, or in some cases may lead to no diagnosable abuse- or addiction-related issues. This does not mean that cocaine intake is less dangerous for more casual users. In fact, the drug is known for its potential to produce unpredictable, dire short-term effects in both experienced and inexperienced users. Examples of these effects include heart attacks, strokes and the complete stoppage of normal heart activity known as cardiac arrest.
Cocaine and Cardiovascular Health
As a stimulant drug, cocaine inevitably produces changes in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) that lead to increased stress on the cardiovascular system. Baseline effects of this increased stress include heightened blood pressure levels, a more rapid heartbeat and increased oxygen requirements for the heart’s muscle tissue. In the short- and long-term, these and other changes in cardiovascular function can seriously harm the health of cocaine users. In addition to heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrest, potential manifestations of this harm include hardening of the arteries, heart enlargement and the formation of aneurysms that dangerously thin and weaken artery walls.
Effects in Non-Addicts
In the study published in PLOS One, researchers from the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and Royal North Shore Hospital used a comparison of 20 cocaine users and 20 non-users to gauge the impact that non-addicted intake of the drug can have on the cardiovascular function of younger adults. All of the cocaine users involved in the project took the drug at least once a month in the year prior to the study, but did not generally meet the standard definitions used to identify cocaine addiction. All of the non-users had no previous history of cocaine intake. When recruiting the members of both groups, the researchers excluded anyone with a known history of heart attacks or other serious cardiovascular complaints. Each member of both groups underwent blood pressure testing, as well as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exam of his or her heart and blood vessels.
The researchers concluded that, compared to the study participants who did not use cocaine, the participants who used the drug experienced significant increases in blood pressure levels during active beating of the heart (i.e., systolic blood pressure). They also concluded that the cocaine users had an unusual tendency toward age-inappropriate stiffness in the aorta, the main artery responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to most of the body. In addition, the researchers concluded that the cocaine users had increased chances of experiencing unusual enlargement of one of the heart’s two blood-pumping chambers.
The study’s authors note that each of the three changes noted in the cocaine-using participants is associated with a heightened risk for developing serious and potentially fatal problems with cardiovascular function. Based on these findings, the authors concluded that even “social use” of cocaine can result in a dangerous decline in cardiovascular health. This is critical information, especially since most casual cocaine users know fairly little about the heart- and blood vessel-related risks of their drug intake.
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