Cocaine use could cause permanent damage to the heart, with persistent high blood pressure and blood vessel stiffness among users long after the initial effects have worn off, Australian research suggests.

A Sydney study of 20 regular recreational cocaine users found they had a 30–35 per cent increase in stiffening of the body's largest blood vessel – the aorta, 8mmHg higher systolic blood pressure and 18 per cent greater thickness of the left ventricle wall of the heart compared to 20 non-users, when assessed at least 48 hours after they last took cocaine.

Previous research had looked at the immediate affects, primarily among addicts. This study was prompted by 5 cocaine-related heart attacks in young men who presented to Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) in Sydney within the past two years.

“The finding that regular [cocaine] use results in chronic changes in heart thickness and vessel stiffness does suggest that these subjects are at increased risk of heart failure, heart attack and stroke in the future,” said lead researcher and cardiologist Associate Professor Gemma Figtree from the RNSH and the University of Sydney.

The study, due to be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions in Los Angeles this week, did not find evidence of silent infarcts (heart attacks without pain or symptoms) among users.

Professor Figtree is continuing the research, recruiting more controls aged 40–70 years for an MRI.

Last Reviewed: 06/11/2012

Adapted with permission from Medical Observer.