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    What You Need to Know About Drug Abuse and Heart Disease

    What You Need to Know About Drug Abuse and Heart Disease

    Author: Atlanta Addiction Recovery Center Editor




    When you think of the causes of heart disease, poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and stress may pop into your mind. Although these are obvious risk factors, the fact that substance abuse is also a leading cause of heart disease is rarely discussed. Both prescription and illicit drugs have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system that range from mild to severe.

    The cardiovascular system is made up of the heart, capillaries, arteries and veins that work together to move blood throughout the body, delivering oxygen and vital nutrients to our organs. When we do damage to our cardiovascular system through poor lifestyle choices, it causes a host of health problems that can have serious consequences including heart attack, stroke, aneurysm and heart failure.

    Drug Abuse and Heart Disease

    Research shows that drug abuse is a major contributor to increased heart and cardiovascular disease. One study revealed that in approximately 4800 drug users requiring hospitalization, 223 were admitted for heart and cardiovascular problems. It was the fourth most common reason for admittance following other mental health disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and psychoses.

    Certain drugs will affect the heart and cardiovascular system in different ways:


    A recent study published in JAMA indicates that many opioid-related deaths are misclassified as overdoses, and are actually due to cardiovascular problems as a result of long-term opioid abuse. According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Wayne Ray of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, “The increased risk of cardiovascular death could be related to adverse respiratory effects of long-acting opioids. Opioids can cause or exacerbate sleep-disordered breathing, including both obstructive and central sleep apnea.”

    Other effects of opioids on the heart include:

    • Hypotension (low blood pressure)
    • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
    • Bradycardia (slowed heart rate)
    • Collapsed veins and blood infections (due to heroin use through injections)


    Over the past few years, cocaine has been dubbed “the perfect heart attack drug”—and for good reason. A study conducted at the University of Sydney and presented in 2012 at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions showed that even occasional use of cocaine can cause higher blood pressure, stiffer arteries and thicker heart muscles compared to non-users. The research revealed that recreational users were found to have many factors that put them at greater risk for heart attack and stroke, including:

    • 30-35 percent increase in aortic stiffening
    • 8 mm Hg higher systolic blood pressure
    • 18 percent greater thickness of the heart’s left ventricle wall

    Another study reported that up to 25 percent of non-fatal heart attacks in adults aged 18 to 45 are associated with cocaine use.

    Gemma Figtree, the lead researcher of the study at the University of Sydney, revealed how users are putting themselves at increased risk for suffering a heart attack. “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 said.


    Although many people believe marijuana is harmless, it is still a drug that adversely affects the organs including the heart. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, marijuana raises resting heart rate, dilates blood vessels and makes the heart pump harder. Research indicates that the risk of a heart attack is several times greater within the hour after smoking marijuana and that people that already have heart disease develop chest pains much more quickly.


    Other stimulants (in addition to cocaine) such as amphetamines, methamphetamines, MDMA and ecstasy force the heart to work much harder. Abusing these drugs can possibly lead to serious and sometimes fatal medical problems, including heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure.

    Stimulants adversely affect the cardiovascular system in many ways, causing:

    • Tachycardia (increased heart rate)
    • Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
    • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
    • Narrowing of blood vessels

    Getting Help for Substance Abuse

    If you’ve experienced cardiovascular problems as well as other medical problems as a result of substance abuse, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The addiction specialists at Atlanta Addiction Recovery Center offer a faith-based and comprehensive medical treatment program that leads to lasting recovery and renewed health. Help is one call away at 770-232-6152.

    Learn how to reverse the damage drugs and alcohol have done to your heart.

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