Cannabis users with irregular heartbeats significantly more likely to die if hospitalized

SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — As marijuana legalization spreads, a more diverse group of people gains access to the once illegal drug. This includes more and more people with preexisting medical conditions, including heart problems. A new study is now warning about a troubling link between cannabis use and heart rhythm disorders. Researchers find cannabis users with an arrhythmia are nearly five times more likely to die in hospital than those without heart issues.

“People should be aware of this devastating outcome and be careful when using cannabis if they have a concomitant heart problem,” says study author Dr. Sittinun Thangjui of Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown, New York in a media release.

The study of more than 2.4 million marijuana users entering U.S. hospitals finds those with arrhythmias are 4.5 times more likely to die during their hospitalization. The results come from a review of the National Inpatient Sample database, which covers 97 percent of the U.S. population. In total, 2,457,544 adult cannabis users entered a hospital between 2016 and 2018. Just over 187,000 of them (7.6%) had an irregular heartbeat.

Researchers find the most common issue was atrial fibrillation, a quivering or irregular heartbeat leading to poor blood flow. Doctors also diagnosed some patients with an abnormally slow heart rate or abnormally fast heart rate.

Is marijuana more dangerous for older users?

Study authors note cannabis users with an arrhythmia were generally older than other users entering hospitals. The average age of cannabis users with heart rhythm disorders was 50.5 years, in comparison to 38.3 for those without. Those with arrhythmias also had more co-existing health problems than other marijuana users.

However, after accounting for influential factors such as age, sex, race, income, diabetes, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, obesity, and even the hospital’s location, the team still finds a significantly higher hospital mortality rate among marijuana users dealing with an arrhythmia. Researchers add these patients also end up staying longer in hospital (5.7 days) than other users (5.1 days).

Cannabis is the most commonly used psychoactive substance around the world. Until now, researchers say there has been little information about how safe it is for people with irregular heartbeats.

“Our study highlights that heart rhythm disorders may be a warning sign for an increased risk of death in people who use cannabis. More studies are needed to confirm our results. In the meantime, it seems sensible to screen these patients for arrhythmias if they present to hospital so that those with a heart rhythm problem can be closely monitored,” Dr. Thangjui concludes.

Researchers are presenting these findings at EHRA 2021, an online scientific congress of the European Society of Cardiology.

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