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Heart Ailment, Cocaine: Deadly Mix?

June 20, 1986|From The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Len Bias' sudden heart failure could have been caused by cocaine, by a heart ailment that his doctors missed or by a combination of the two, experts said Thursday.

Dr. Barry Maron, a senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, reviewing an electrocardiogram done on Bias as part of a University of Maryland study, said Thursday: "It's not totally normal, really. . . ." He said the tracing contained "some T-wave abnormalities," a finding that could signal a heart problem or could be insignificant.

Maron said that when a young, healthy person dies of cardiac arrest, the most common explanation is a hidden heart defect.

As for cocaine, it can cause heart failure even in a healthy heart. Cocaine is toxic to the heart and also puts stress on it by raising temperature, blood pressure and pulse rate, according to Greg Hayner, assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California at San Francisco.

He said the drug releases body stores of catecholamines, chemical transmitters that increase the metabolic rate and also sensitize the heart muscle to electrical stimulation, causing abnormal rhythms. Cocaine users can die from ventricular fibrillation, a chaotic disturbance of heart rhythm that prevents the heart from pumping blood to the body.

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