New research has uncovered a potentially important link between early cannabis use and the risk of developing heart disease later in life. In one of the first studies looking at specific risk factors of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in young, healthy cannabis users, the researchers on the paper identified small – but potentially important – changes in heart and artery function.
“Cannabis is really widely used as a recreational substance all around the world and is becoming increasingly so,” said Christian Cheung, a PhD student in the Human Performance and Health Research Lab, part of the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS) in a statement. “Scientists haven’t done that research with cannabis.”
It is well documented that cigarette smoking for example has detrimental effects on cardiovascular health, however, not much is known about cannabis smoking and the long-term effects on the heart and blood vessels.
To find out more, the researchers followed 35 subjects in the study between the ages of 19 and 30. Out of the subjects, 18 were early cannabis users and 17 were control subjects who did not use cannabis.
The researchers then assessed the participant's hearts and arteries using ultrasound imaging to assess for any changes in arterial stiffness, arterial function, or the ability of arteries to appropriately dilate to allow blood to flow through. The findings reported in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that the cannabis users had overall stiffer arteries compared to the control group. Furthermore, the findings also revealed that cardiac function was overall lower in cannabis users compared to the control group.
Interestingly, however, the researchers did not see a change in artery dilation in cannabis users versus the control group – which was a surprise, seeing as this a common finding in cigarette smokers.
“We looked at young cannabis users. In the cigarette literature, heavy, long-term smokers show reduced vascular function but that’s not necessarily the case for younger smokers,” added Cheung. “We don’t yet know why in cannabis users there’s no difference in vascular function.”
Nevertheless, this study has pointed out that there might be small changes in arterial stiffness and cardiac function which may be indicative of developing CVD later in life.
However, more robust follow-up research should be done with a larger and more diverse population size to assess if these changes are indeed linked to cannabis use as the current study design could not address whether it is a causal link.
“This is exciting new data, suggesting that even before more overt signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease are present, there may be more subtle indications in altered physiological function,” said Dr Jamie Burr, co-author of the study and professor at the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences.
“It also paves the way to our next studies, aimed at understanding the direct effects of cannabis consumption, and how this may interact with common stressors of everyday life, like exercise.”