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Is cocaine silently killing its users?

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Is cocaine silently damaging its users hearts? istockphoto

(CBS) Is cocaine silently killing its users? An eye-popping new study suggests that coke-heads are harming their hearts - in many cases without even realizing it.

It's not exactly news that cocaine has a detrimental effect on the cardiovascular system. Coke has been linked to heart rhythm abnormalities (arrhythmias) and strokes, and the scientists behind the study - published in the June 20 issue of the journal Heart - say that autopsies of long-term cocaine users reveal that about one in five had myocarditis. That's an inflammatory condition of the heart that can cause chest pain and heart attacks. 

The authors estimate that one in four non-fatal heart attacks in persons under age 45 is linked to cocaine.

But can coke cause heart damage even in the absence of symptoms? That's what the scientists wanted to find out.

So they looked at 30 chronic, heavy cocaine users who had no symptoms of heart disease - men and women who abused the drug for at least 12 years. Using MRI scans and EKGs, the scientists found that 12 of the coke users showed evidence of significant cardiac abnormalities. Almost half had swelling of the lower left ventricle, and roughly three out of four showed signs of scarring (fibrosis).

While the swelling is often reversible, fibrosis - which can be the aftermath of a silent heart attack - is not.

Cocaine is one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the U.S., with 6.4 million users between the ages of 15 and 64. In addition to cardiovascular problems, cocaine can cause ulcers and kidney failure, according to WebMD.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on cocaine abuse.