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Cocaine Users Up to 600 Times More Likely to Suffer Stroke

Strokes are medical emergencies that occur when the brain loses part of its blood supply as a result of a blocked or ruptured artery. The vast majority of affected individuals undergo a form of stroke called an ischemic stroke. Medical professionals have known for some time that people who use cocaine have increased odds of experiencing a stroke. According to the results of a study presented to the American Stroke Association in February 2014, teenagers, young adults and middle-aged adults who use cocaine have steeply boosted odds of suffering an ischemic stroke within 24 hours of taking the drug.

The Basics

Strokes cause damage because loss of blood flow inside the brain leads to tissue death in the affected areas. A person undergoing a stroke can experience consequences as relatively minor as weakness in a limb or as catastrophic as full body debilitation or death. An ischemic stroke occurs when a person develops a blockage in one of the arteries that supply the brain with oxygen-rich blood. As a rule, such a blockage stems from a blood clot formed from fat-based deposits that accumulate on the wall of an artery. In some cases, the clots responsible for ischemic strokes form in the spot where fat deposits initially build up. In other cases, clots that form from fat deposits in one location in the body travel through the bloodstream before lodging in a brain artery. Fully 87 percent of people in the U.S. who have strokes suffer from ischemic strokes, the American Stroke Association reports.


Cocaine is a stimulant drug of abuse that produces much of its effect by seriously increasing the normal rate of cellular activity inside the brain and spinal cord (i.e., the central nervous system). Key aspects of body function impacted by this steep rise in activity include digestion, the ability to regulate internal temperature and the ability to maintain a steady heartbeat and circulate blood through arteries and veins. Specific cardiovascular (heart- and blood vessel-related) changes found in people who take cocaine include blood vessel narrowing, sharp increases in normal heart rate and sharp increases in normal blood pressure (the amount of strain that pulsing blood places on blood vessel walls). In addition to its potential role in triggering a stroke, cocaine use is known as a possible underlying cause for both heart attacks and complete cardiac arrest (heart stoppage).

Short-Term Stroke Risks

In the study presented to the American Stroke Association, researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center used a long-term examination of teenagers, young adults and middle-aged adults in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to investigate the connection between cocaine use and ischemic strokes. All told, the project included over 1,000 individuals between the ages of 15 and 49 known to have experienced a stroke at some point between 1991 and 2008. It also included an equally large comparison group of individuals in the same age range who had never experienced a stroke. Over 25 percent of the people in both the stroke and non-stroke groups identified themselves as current or previous cocaine users.

After comparing stroke histories and cocaine histories in the study participants, the researchers concluded that a past history of cocaine use does not make a person any more likely to experience an ischemic stroke than someone who has never used cocaine. However, they also concluded that, for current cocaine users in the 24-hour period immediately following cocaine intake, the risks for suffering an ischemic stroke jump by 500 percent to 600 percent.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study presented to the American Stroke Association note that the link between cocaine use and heightened short-term risks for ischemic stroke holds true for both African Americans and people of European descent. They also note the fact that only roughly 33 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 49 who experience a stroke go through testing that could detect the presence of cocaine or other drugs. This means that, in all likelihood, short-term ischemic stroke risks in cocaine users are at least somewhat higher than the study’s results indicate. Strokes are preventable in as many as four out of five cases, the National Stroke Association reports. Since cocaine use is preventable and treatable, cocaine-related strokes certainly fall under the heading of avoidable ailments.

Posted on February 20th, 2014
Posted in Cocaine

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