Even Social Cocaine Use Boosts Heart Attack Risk
Cocaine smugglers have resorted to some desperate tactics.
Credit: Photopixel | Shutterstock.com

You don't have to be an addict of cocaine for the drug to mess up your heart. New research shows that even social users of the stimulant have stiffer arteries, higher blood pressure and thicker heart walls than non-users.

"It's the perfect heart attack drug," said researcher Gemma Figtree, who led the study.

"It's so sad. We are repeatedly seeing young, otherwise fit individuals suffering massive heart attacks related to cocaine use," Figtree, of the Sydney Medical School in Australia, said in a statement. "Despite being well-educated professionals, they have no knowledge of the health consequences of regularly using cocaine."

Australian researchers used MRI scans to examine 20 otherwise healthy adults (average age 37) who reported using the highly addictive drug at least once a month for the last year. Compared with 20 non-users, these adults had up to 35 percent more aortic stiffening, higher systolic blood pressure and 18 percent greater thickness of the heart's left ventricle wall.

"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. These combined effects put users at high risk of a spontaneous heart attack.

The researchers say their study is the first to show that hypertension and vascular stiffness in cocaine users lasts long after the immediate effects of the drug have worn off. (The participants were scanned at least 48 hours after their last cocaine use.) Researchers are now focusing on what causes blood vessels to stiffen in recreational cocaine users and are looking into a signaling pathway that might be trigger such a response.

The research was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.