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Cannabis use disorder linked to increased heart risks

Individuals diagnosed with cannabis use disorder may have a heightened risk of facing major cardiovascular events like heart attacks or strokes, according to a new study.

The researchers found that people with cannabis use disorder are at a 60% higher risk of experiencing a major heart-related event compared to individuals who do not misuse the drug.

Focus of the study 

The study was focused on information from five databases, including close to 60,000 cannabis users – half of whom were diagnosed with cannabis use disorder. 

The findings indicate a “substantial association between cannabis use disorder and the increased risk of first-time adverse cardiovascular events,” said lead researcher Dr. Anees Bahji, a clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Calgary.

Potential cardiovascular risks

However, he emphasized that the research doesn’t necessarily prove that marijuana abuse causes heart problems, but indicates a potential higher risk for those diagnosed with cannabis use disorder.

The study further highlights the need for a better understanding of the cardiovascular risks linked to cannabis use disorder. Such risks might have been previously underestimated or ignored.

What is cannabis use disorder?

Cannabis use disorder is defined as a pattern of marijuana usage that leads to significant distress or impairment. 

Symptoms and related behaviors include:

  • Unsuccessful efforts to reduce or control usage
  • Spending excessive time obtaining or using cannabis
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not consuming it

“The diagnosis of cannabis use disorder depends on meeting specific criteria, and it is not solely based on frequency or quantity of use,” said Dr. Bahji. “Individuals can develop this disorder even with relatively infrequent cannabis use if their use leads to significant impairment in their daily life, relationships or overall well-being.”

Underlying factors

The underlying cause driving the link between elevated heart risk and cannabis use disorder remains unclear. 

Dr. Bahji noted that cannabis could affect heart rate, blood pressure, inflammation levels in the body, blood clotting, and the ability of blood vessels to dilate and relax. 

Complex relationship

“The relationship between cannabis use and cardiovascular events is complex and may also be influenced by factors such as the method of cannabis consumption, the presence of other co-occurring health conditions, and individual variations in response to cannabis,” said Dr. Bahji. 

“Further research is needed to better understand these mechanisms and the overall impact on cardiovascular health.”

Conflicting opinions

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, disagrees with the findings.

“The presence of cannabis use disorder isn’t very accurate in helping us to determine anything,” said Dr. Grinspoon, noting that individuals with this disorder may have had other medical conditions that they were using the cannabis to treat. This could mean they were less healthy and could explain the higher rates of heart disease.”

“There are too many possible variables that could skew the results, so I don’t make much of the study or its results. It is more anti-cannabis porn, in my humble opinion,” said Dr. Grinspoon.

“That said, if you take too high a dosage of cannabis, it can cause anxiety which, in turn, can trigger an arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) or possibly a coronary event, so, inpatients with a history of coronary disease, particularly recent, unstable coronary disease, or with a history of arrhythmia, I treat very carefully if at all with medicinal cannabis.”

The study is published in the journal Addiction.

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