Recreational cocaine users have been found by researchers to have higher blood pressure, harder arteries, and thicker heart muscle walls than individuals who do not use the drug, according to findings showcased at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2012.

Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), experts from Australia calculated the impact of the drug on 20 individuals, who, aside from cocaine use, were healthy. The researchers determined that when compared with non-users, the people using cocaine had an increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack.

Cocaine users were found to have an 8mm Hg higher systolic blood pressure than those who did not use the illegal substance, as well as a 30 to 35% increase in stiffening of the aorta. Left ventricle heart wall width of the users were found to be 18% thicker.

Lead author of the study Gemma Figtree, M.B.B.S, D. Phil., commented:

“Its so sad. 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.”

Figtree, who is an associate professor of medicine at Sydney Medical School at the University of Sydney, explained that when the impact of higher blood clotting, greater strain on the heart, and more pressure on the blood vessels is mixed, cocaine users have a much greater chance of suffering from out-of-the-blue heart attacks.

Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital has seen an increase in infarcts associated with cocaine use, which urged the researchers to look into the effects of regular cocaine use on otherwise healthy individuals and their cardiovascular irregularities.

Seventeen men and three women whose average age was 37 were drafted for the trial – all of whom used cocaine at least once a month during the past year. The participants were given surveys inquiring about their drug habits, socioeconomic standings, and cardiovascular risk factors.

Within two days of their last cocaine experience the people involved in the study were tested for blood pressure, and were then given MRIs to evaluate heart mass and how well their hearts and aortas were working. The participants’ levels were compared with non-users of the same age; history of smoking, diabetes, and other drug use were considered during comparison.

Increased levels of systolic blood pressure and more arterial hardening was found among the cocaine users, which is linked to thickening of the heart walls.

Figtree continued, “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.”

In opposition to previous trials, the experts did not discover any evidence supporting previous silent heart attacks among regular users of cocaine. The new study is the first to report vascular stiffness and continuous hypertension even after short-term effects are gone.

It is not yet certain how regular social cocaine use leads to vascular stiffness, however, the experts are looking into the activation of a signaling pathway which may be responsible for these reactions.

Figree notes that the recent findings reiterate the need for education regarding the long and short-term results from cocaine use.

Written by Christine Kearney