Substance Abuse and Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, has been the leading cause of death in the United States for more than 80 years. It has also been a significant cause of disability for just as long. Several forms of heart disease target different areas of the cardiovascular system? and substance abuse can cause any of them.

About the Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system, which is also called the circulatory system, pumps blood throughout the body. It includes:

  • the heart
  • capillaries
  • arteries
  • veins

Oxygen-rich blood reaches organs and muscle tissue from the arteries while deoxygenated blood pumps through the veins to the heart for reoxygenation. The cycle continues as blood moves in a loop from the heart to the arteries, then to the veins and back to the heart again.

The cardiovascular system also aids in the body?s removal of harmful materials. Blood vessels carry waste products to the liver. Once the liver filters them, the body expels them. Overall, the cardiovascular system is what keeps every organ and muscle functioning at their best.

The Consequences of Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the dysfunction or damage to any part of the cardiovascular system, which reaches every part and organ in the body. Any disruption in blood circulation can cause oxygen deprivation for the body’s organs and tissues. This could cause necrosis, or tissue death. As a result, the muscular actions that require blood flow become weak and the functions of other organs, like the liver and the brain, become compromised.

Certain kinds of heart disease can be hereditary or even environmental. However, abusing harmful substances like drugs and alcohol is a well-known factor in the sort of cardiovascular deterioration that triggers heart disease.

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About Substance Abuse and Addiction

Although the Fifth Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has replaced the phrase ?substance abuse? with ?substance use disorder? to describe addiction, the definition remains the same. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is ?a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.?

Addiction?s effects on the brain qualify it as a brain disease. It alters the brain?s regular function. These changes in the brain can cause not only harmful habits and behaviors to develop but also lasting damage to the rest of the body. The cardiovascular system is particularly susceptible to the consequences of substance abuse.

Types of Cardiovascular Disease Brought On by Drug Addiction

Aneurysmal Dilatation

This condition, also called an aneurysm, is a balloon-like swelling in an artery that compromises healthy cardiovascular function. The localized enlargement is the result of a weak artery wall and can be as large as 1.5 times the normal arterial diameter.


An irregular heartbeat defines this condition. For the most part, arrhythmias are non-threatening, but it does compromise the normal rate of blood flow throughout the body. Severe cases of arrhythmia have the potential to trigger cardiac arrest.


Plaque buildup in blood vessels characterizes this cardiovascular disease. The plaque is normally a collection of fats, cholesterol, and other similar bodily substances. Since atherosclerosis makes blood vessels narrower than normal, it makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood efficiently.

Cardiac Arrest

This cardiovascular disturbance defined as a sudden loss of heart functioning, which stops breathing and triggers unconsciousness. It?s commonly confused with a heart attack, but it is not the same thing. Unless heart attacks, cardiac arrest does not involve a disruption in blood flow.


This condition describes heart muscle damage. There are two variations of cardiomyopathy: hypertrophic and dilated. During hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle is larger and thicker than normal. This can block blood flow out of the ventricle (heart chamber). Dilated cardiomyopathy describes an enlargement of the ventricle, not the heart muscle. This enlargement can compromise the heart?s ability to pump blood. Both forms of this cardiovascular disease are typically genetic, but substance abuse can also cause cardiomyopathy.

Cerebral Infarction

This condition is a consequence of cardiovascular disease. Cerebral infarction is an area of necrotic (dead) tissue in the brain that resulted from oxygen deprivation due to poor circulation.

Cerebrovascular Accident (CVA)

CVA is a disruption of blood flow that causes damage to the brain. It?s also called a stroke.

Coronary Heart Disease

This disease is the consequence of major blood vessel damage in the heart. It develops when the coronary arteries? the vessels that supply blood to the heart? become damaged or diseased in some way. Just like with atherosclerosis, plaque buildup is usually the cause of coronary heart disease.


This cardiovascular condition is the result of damaged blood vessels. When blood vessels rupture or tear, blood escapes its regular circulation to and from the heart (bleeding). Hemorrhaging can be either external or internal. When it is internal, the localized bleeding can damage tissues or disrupt regular organ functions. In cases like this, hemorrhaging becomes ?internal bleeding.?


This common cardiovascular condition is also called high blood pressure. It occurs when the amount of blood flow resistance against the artery walls is too high. Hypertension is usually the result of narrow arteries.


Simply put, this cardiovascular condition is the opposite of hypertension?low blood pressure. Severe cases of this condition may be life-threatening.

Myocardial Infarction

This is the cardiovascular disturbance that most people confuse with cardiac arrest. However, a myocardial infarction is the result of oxygen deprivation in the heart muscle. Two of the three coronary arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the heart muscle. When one of them is suddenly blocked, this cuts off oxygen to a significant portion of the heart and causes a heart attack.


When blood is pumped too slowly through the vessels, blood cells can lump together to form a blood clot. Thrombosis can occur in both veins (deep vein thrombosis) and arteries (arterial thrombosis). The latter can cause a heart attack or stroke.

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Drugs Linked to Cardiovascular Disease

Researchers have found that a wide variety of drugs, illicit or otherwise, can cause adverse cardiovascular effects and heart disease. One study found that 223 of 4800 people with substance use disorders were hospitalized due to onset cardiovascular disease. This may seem like a small percentage, but heart disease was actually the fourth most common reason for hospital admission among this sample population. Further research indicates that certain drugs have a larger impact on the cardiovascular system than others.


Alcohol is a depressant that is widely available to anyone 21 and older. Since it is a legal substance, it has a high potential for abuse. In fact, the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) confirmed that more than 15 million American adults struggle with alcoholism.

Alcoholism has been a well-known culprit of onset cardiovascular disease for many years. One study examined 73 patients with heart problems and found that 17.8% of them had a history of alcoholism. Abusing alcohol can lead to a wide variety of cardiovascular complications, including:

  • peripheral artery disease
  • cardiomyopathy
  • hemorrhaging
  • hypertension
  • arrhythmia


This is a class of drugs that can either be used medically or illicitly. As a medicine, amphetamines are most often prescribed to individuals struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD). However, amphetamines are also the active ingredient in the illicit drug methamphetamine, more commonly known as meth. Habitual abuse of this stimulant can cause any number of cardiovascular diseases or adverse reactions. These may include:

  • myocardial infarction
  • cerebral infarction
  • cardiomyopathy
  • arrhythmia

Misusing both amphetamines (a stimulant) and alcohol (a depressant) is particularly dangerous since each substance affects the central nervous system in conflicting ways. Abusing both at the same time could result in severe cardiovascular complication and even death.


Drugs that are classified as psychostimulants tend to have notable and sometimes adverse effects on the cardiovascular system. This is especially true for cocaine, an illegal and very potent psychostimulant. In addition to its effects on the brain?s neurotransmitters, cocaine can damage the cardiovascular system in a number of ways. In fact, medical research credits cocaine as the most harmful to cardiovascular health. Cocaine use can cause several heart diseases and other medical complications, including:

  • coronary heart disease
  • aneurysmal dilatation
  • myocardial infarction
  • cardiomyopathy
  • atherosclerosis
  • cardiac arrest
  • hypertension
  • thrombosis
  • seizures

According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) by the CDC, regular cocaine use accounts for roughly 25% of heart attacks in adults aged 18 to 45. However, even one-time use of cocaine can lead to cardiovascular complications. Using cocaine just once can cause variant angina or Prinzmetal?s angina, a very painful heart condition characterized by coronary spasms and severe chest pain.


Opioids are a class of pharmaceutical drugs that come from the poppy plant. For centuries, it?s been used as a natural painkiller. Today, synthetic opioids are used in prescription pain relief medications. Some of the most popular among people with chronic pain include hydrocodone, oxycodone, and codeine. They each work similarly to the body?s natural endorphins, which inhibit pain signals from reaching sensory receptors in the brain. Essentially, opioids cut off the pain signal before your brain can recognize that the body is hurt.

While they are mostly used as prescription painkillers, opioids come in illicit forms, too. Heroin is one example. When people use opioids recreationally, it brings about a sense of euphoria instead of relief, since there is no pain to treat. Unfortunately, opioids carry a very high potential for abuse either way.

Besides, the misuse of either prescription or illicit opioids tends to yield the same adverse effects on the cardiovascular system. Opioids slow the sympathetic nervous system (?fight or flight?) and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (?rest and digest?). This causes organs and bodily systems to become slower and more depressed. Most opiate effects on the cardiovascular system are the opposite of those brought on by cocaine and other stimulants. Such effects might include:

  • cerebrovascular accident (CVA)
  • coronary heart disease
  • hypotension
  • arrhythmia


This class of drugs has a variety of uses in medicine. Most of the time, steroids are used to mimic hormones that the body naturally produces to assist in normal physical and biochemical bodily functions. As such, they have a high potential for abuse as performance-enhancing drugs.

Misusing steroids can cause a number of medical consequences, including biochemical abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, and cardiovascular disease. Anabolic steroids in particular, which consist of testosterone and its derivatives, can cause conditions like:

  • cerebrovascular accident (CVA)
  • cardiomyopathy
  • hypertension
  • hypotension
  • thrombosis

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Simple Ways to Lower the Risks of Cardiovascular Disease

The chances of developing a?cardiovascular disease will greatly diminish with a few lifestyle changes. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)?s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the most effective changes include:

  • a healthy diet with low amounts of salt and fat
  • building an age-appropriate exercise regimen
  • maintaining a healthy weight and BMI
  • finding ways to manage stress

Addiction Help at The Treatment Center

Substance use disorders, if left untreated, can bring about a wide variety of other health problems? including cardiovascular disease. If you or someone you know is struggling to quit a substance addiction, please call The Treatment Center at 855-899-5065. Our programs and services are personalized to meet every patient?s individual needs.? ?