Pandemic-Fueled Drug Abuse Threatens Hearts, Lives

By American Heart Association News
HealthDay reporter

TUESDAY, April 20, 2021 (American Heart Association News) – Recently, in his Denver Health emergency room, Dr. Eric Lavonas struck another tragic trifecta.

“During a nine-hour shift, I took care of a person with chest pain from cocaine, a person with an opioid overdose who stopped breathing, and an opioid overdose. person using methamphetamine who thought they were being chased by shape-shifting demons, ”he said. “Unfortunately, this is no longer a rare event.”

Lavonas, who is also a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado, is at the forefront of what appears to be an outbreak of pandemic-linked illegal drugs that damage hearts and threaten lives.

At the end of June last year, 13% of Americans said they had started or increased substance use as a way to cope with stress or emotions related to the coronavirus, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In December, the CDC reported that drug abuse and fatal overdoses began to increase early in the pandemic, presumably as lockdowns, financial strains and uncertainty about the future had boosted drug use. drugs. A preliminary CDC summary released last week found nearly 90,000 overdose deaths in the 12 months ending September 2020, a 29% increase from the previous period. That topped the more than 80,000 annual deaths reported last May, according to health officials at the time, the highest number on record in 12 months.


Although more recent statistics are not yet available, Lavonas said: “Everyone’s perception is that these are on the rise this year. People are more stressed than ever and they are more socially disconnected than ever. “

Lavonas helped write an American Heart Association scientific statement last month warning of opioid overdose – now the leading cause of death among Americans aged 25 to 64 – and urging non-medical people to learn how to administer naloxone, which counteracts an opioid overdose.

Dr Isac Thomas, a cardiologist at the University of California at San Diego Health, echoed the concern about opioid abuse, but is also alarmed by methamphetamine, a potent and highly addictive stimulant.


“I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the magnitude of the problem, especially in the area of ​​cardiology,” said Thomas, who helped lead two recent studies linking methamphetamine use to heart failure. “A lot of young people are really shortening their lives.”

The three drugs encountered by Lavonas during his shift punish the heart in different ways.


Cocaine was dubbed “the perfect heart attack drug” by Australian researchers presenting their findings at a conference in 2012. Regular use of the illegal stimulant can stiffen arteries, increase blood pressure, study finds and damage to the heart muscle – all risk factors for heart attack and stroke.

Likewise, according to Thomas, methamphetamine “has a direct toxic effect on the heart.” This causes dilated cardiomyopathy, he said, a weakening and enlargement of the heart muscle which ultimately leads to heart failure.

“We see a lot of young men and women coming in with shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue,” Thomas said. “We find that their hearts are badly damaged and just aren’t pumping very well. It’s a pretty serious disease, and it puts them at a pretty high risk of dying despite their young age.”

More immediately, methamphetamine can cause irrational and even psychotic behavior. “I’ve seen people on methamphetamine die from running around in traffic,” Lavonas said.

The effects of opioids on the heart are less direct, but no less dangerous.


“Opioids have become a lot deadlier as the previous epidemic of prescription drug abuse and heroin was replaced by fentanyl, which is much more potent,” Lavonas said. “People die within minutes of being injected and often they die on their own.”

They die because illegally produced fentanyl without proper controls and dosing can be so potent that users fall asleep and stop breathing.

“If there is no oxygen in the brain and the heart, then the brain and the heart die,” Lavonas said. “I have great compassion for the people who cannot stop using, but you are one unlucky fentanyl shot every time away from death.”

Injecting any medication, Thomas warned, can lead to endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the heart valves.


Both doctors said that in the fight against drug addiction, there are no easy answers.

“We can educate patients about treatment plans, but we can only control so much in their life,” Thomas said. “Once released, they often fall back into their pattern of dependence.”


As he grapples with the opioid crisis, Lavonas has a dual message: “Get help. There are good support and treatment systems, ”he said. “But recovery comes in stages. For people who are not yet ready to take that step, at least never use alone and always have naloxone available. As long as you are alive, there is hope.”

For those who need to seek help, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline is available at 800-985-5990.

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Any opinions expressed in this story do not reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. The copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. If you have any questions or comments about this story, please send an email [email protected]

By Michael Precker

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