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Smoking cannabis dramatically increases heart attack risk

A recent study supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has found that regular smoking of cannabis could considerably increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. 

The experts analyzed data from nearly 435,000 American adults, marking it as one of the broadest studies to examine the link between cannabis use and cardiovascular health.

Key findings of cannabis and heart attacks

The research, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) demonstrates that daily cannabis consumption, primarily through smoking, correlates with a 25% heightened likelihood of a heart attack and a 42% greater chance of stroke compared to those who abstain from cannabis. 

Even occasional cannabis use was associated with an increased risk for these cardiovascular events, with weekly users seeing a 3% and 5% increased likelihood of heart attack and stroke, respectively.

Approximately three-quarters of the participants indicated they consumed cannabis by smoking, while around one-quarter utilized other methods such as vaping or ingesting the substance.

Cardiovascular disease and underlying mechanisms

“We know that toxins are released when cannabis is burned, similar to those found in tobacco smoke,” said corresponding author Abra Jeffers, a data analyst at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. 

“We’ve known for a long time that smoking tobacco is linked to heart disease, and this study is evidence that smoking cannabis appears to also be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.”

The study points out that while the direct mechanisms through which cannabis contributes to heart disease remain unclear, factors including the release of toxins and the presence of endocannabinoid receptors in cardiovascular tissues, which interact with THC (the primary psychoactive component in cannabis), might play a significant role.

As cannabis becomes more widely accepted and legal across numerous states for both medicinal and recreational purposes, its consumption has significantly increased over the last two decades. 

Significance of heart attacks and cannabis

While some research has connected regular cannabis use with negative health outcomes like impaired brain development and lung damage, as well as cardiovascular diseases, comprehensive knowledge about its impact on heart health is lacking.

To explore the associations between cannabis use and health outcomes further, Jeffers and her team analyzed 2016–2020 data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This survey included a diverse group of adults from across the United States.

“This is an important public health finding, particularly given our ongoing efforts to reduce the burden of heart disease in this country,” said David C. Goff,  the director of the NHLBI’s Division of Cardiovascular Sciences.

“Asking patients about their cannabis use during routine medical exams or physicals in much the same way they might be asked about tobacco use will help us learn more about the long-term effect of marijuana on the body,” Jeffers concluded.

The study’s findings: A closer look

As discussed above, the “Association of Cannabis Use With Cardiovascular Outcomes Among US Adults” study meticulously analyzed the effects of cannabis use, through smoking, eating, or vaporizing, on cardiovascular outcomes.

It was found that any form of cannabis use is independently linked to a higher incidence of adverse cardiovascular events, including coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and stroke.

Frequency of cannabis smoking vs. heart attack risk

Notably, the frequency of cannabis use further escalated the odds of encountering these adverse outcomes, even after adjusting for other cardiovascular risk factors such as tobacco or e-cigarette use, alcohol consumption, body mass index, Type 2 diabetes, and physical activity levels.

Interestingly, the study revealed that both occasional and daily cannabis users face an elevated risk of heart attacks compared to non-users. Daily users, in particular, exhibited a 25% higher chance of experiencing a heart attack.

When it came to stroke risk, daily cannabis users had a 42% higher likelihood than non-users, though the risk was somewhat reduced for less frequent users.

A significant portion of the study focused on younger adults at risk for premature cardiovascular disease (men under 55 and women under 65). In this group, cannabis use was strongly associated with a 36% increased combined risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

This association held true regardless of the use of traditional tobacco products. A detailed analysis of adults within this subgroup who had never smoked tobacco cigarettes or used nicotine e-cigarettes still found a notable link between cannabis use and heightened cardiovascular risks.

Implications and considerations

The study surveyed participants aged between 18 to 74 years, with an average age of 45 years. Approximately half of the participants identified as female, with a diverse racial composition among respondents.

Notably, nearly 90% of the surveyed adults did not use cannabis at all, showcasing the prevalence of non-use. Among current cannabis users, smoking was identified as the most common method of consumption.

This study underscores the critical need for awareness about the potential cardiovascular risks associated with cannabis use.

As cannabis becomes more prevalent and traditional tobacco use declines, understanding the health implications of cannabis is paramount for both users and healthcare providers.

The findings suggest that individuals, especially younger adults at risk for cardiovascular diseases, should exercise caution and seek medical advice when considering cannabis use.

In summary, while cannabis may offer certain benefits, its impact on cardiovascular health cannot be overlooked.

As research in this area continues to evolve, it is essential for ongoing studies to further elucidate the complex relationship between cannabis use and cardiovascular disease, guiding public health policies and individual choices alike.

Smoking cannabis, heart attacks, and human health

As discussed above, cannabis, a plant with a long history of medicinal and recreational use, has seen a significant shift in legal status and societal acceptance in recent years.

As more countries and states legalize its use, understanding the impact of smoking cannabis on human health becomes increasingly important.

Potential health benefits of cannabis

Pain Management

One of the most well-documented benefits of cannabis is its effectiveness in managing chronic pain. The compounds in cannabis, particularly THC and CBD, interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to reduce pain perception. This has made it a popular alternative for individuals suffering from conditions such as neuropathy, arthritis, and migraine headaches.

Mental Health Support

Cannabis has also shown promise in treating certain mental health conditions. For some people, it can reduce anxiety and improve sleep patterns. In particular, CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, has been studied for its potential to alleviate anxiety without the high associated with THC.

Neurological and Seizure Disorders

Research indicates that cannabis can benefit individuals with neurological disorders. Specifically, CBD has been approved by the FDA to treat two rare forms of epilepsy, demonstrating its effectiveness in reducing seizure frequency.

Heart attacks and other health risks associated with smoking cannabis

Respiratory Issues

While cannabis smoke is less harmful than tobacco smoke, it still contains irritants and carcinogens that can affect lung health. Regular smoking can lead to chronic bronchitis and increase the risk of respiratory infections. However, the link between cannabis smoke and lung cancer remains unclear, with studies showing mixed results.

Mental Health Concerns

For some individuals, cannabis use can exacerbate mental health problems. High doses of THC can induce paranoia and worsen symptoms of anxiety in certain users. Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that regular cannabis use, especially when started at a young age, may increase the risk of developing psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia in individuals with a predisposition.

Dependency and Cognitive Impact

Regular, long-term use of cannabis can lead to dependency, characterized by a need to use cannabis to function normally. Additionally, adolescent use has been linked to alterations in brain development, potentially affecting cognitive function and memory.

In summary, the relationship between smoking cannabis and human health is complex and multifaceted. While cannabis offers potential health benefits, including pain relief and mental health support, it also poses risks, particularly when smoked regularly.

As research continues to evolve, it is crucial for individuals to weigh these benefits and risks in consultation with healthcare professionals, especially in jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for medicinal or recreational use.

Education and moderation are key to maximizing the therapeutic potential of cannabis while minimizing its health risks.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.


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