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Impact of Opiate Dependence on Vascular Health

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What is the impact of opiate dependence on vascular health? Prolonged opiate use can have profound effects on emotional and psychological health, but it also negatively impacts physical well-being.  Although the primary site of action of opiates is in the brain, opiates also lead to changes in several body systems.  Most prominent among these is the cardiovascular system, which is responsible for delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues.  Over time, using opiates (whether heroin or prescription opioid painkillers) can significantly disrupt cardiovascular functioning.

Opiates and The Heart: What’s the Link?

More than 40 years of research suggests that opiate molecules can directly impact the cardiovascular system.  In particular, opiates can travel into cells to stimulate a receptor that signals a molecule called P16.  In numerous studies assessing the genetic contributions to heart disease, the gene encoding P16 has emerged as a candidate.  Thus, acute or chronic use of opiates may trigger a cascade of events that cause P16 to impact cell and tissue growth.
One of the most important metrics of vascular health is the flexibility of artery walls.  Smooth, unblocked arteries with flexible walls are ideal for allowing blood to pass unobstructed.  Arterial stiffness, or hardening of artery walls, occurs during the aging process and is exacerbated by certain lifestyle choices such as smoking.  The effect is that people with stiffening of artery walls are at significantly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.

How Using Opiates Damages Vascular Health

A 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of Western Australia investigated the impact of opiate use on metrics of vascular health.  The researchers found that lifetime opiate use is associated with increased stiffness of arteries and higher vascular age.  Significantly, this relationship was connected to the length of time a person had been using opiates.  People who used opiates for a longer time had stiffer arteries and increased vascular age.  This suggests that overcoming opiate dependence can stop the progression of harmful vascular aging, which would improve overall health.
Another recent study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, followed a group of male opiate users and measured their vascular health at an average of 625 time points.  The study found that compared to healthy, non-drug using controls, the people using opiates experienced accelerated vascular aging.  Factors such as arterial stiffness put them at increased risk for heart disease and other dangerous cardiovascular conditions.

Can the Vascular Damage be Reversed?

If long term opiate use leads to vascular damage, it stands to reason that undergoing treatment for opiate dependence may slow or reverse this damage.  To better understand this process, scientists followed a group of people dependent on opiates.  They compared three groups of people: those who successfully underwent treatment to become opiate-free, those who were treated with the opiate antagonist naltrexone, and those who continued to abuse opiates.
Participants in the opiate-free condition had an average vascular age of 35, while those who continued to use opiates had an average vascular age of nearly 39.  The group treated with naltrexone were intermediate between the other two groups.  These findings suggest that overcoming opiate dependence can halt or even reverse the rate of vascular damage.  Although more research is needed to confirm these effects, successful opiate detoxification — even following years of opiate dependence — may have powerful effects on heart health.
Thus, it is important for people struggling with opiate dependence to seek help immediately.  The Waismann Method center can help create an individualized detox protocol to help you or your loved one overcome opiate dependence.  Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.


Reduction in arterial stiffness and vascular age by naltrexone-induced interruption of opiate agonism: a cohort study.  BMJ Open, 2013;3:e002610. Retrieved on March 23, 2015.
Impact of Opioid Pharmacotherapy on Arterial Stiffness and Vascular Ageing: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Studies. Cardiovascular Toxicology, September 2013, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 254-266 Retrieved on March 23, 2015.
Opiate exposure increases arterial stiffness, advances vascular age and is an independent cardiovascular risk factor in females: A cross-sectional clinical study.  World Journal of Cardiovascular Disease, 2013, 3, 361-3. Retrieved on March 23, 2015.
Duration of opiate exposure as a determinant of arterial stiffness and vascular age in male opiate dependence: a longitudinal study.  Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, Volume 39, Issue 2, pages 158–167, April 2014. Retrieved on March 23, 2015.

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