Rates of heart failure (HF) caused by methamphetamine abuse are climbing quickly in the western United States, at great financial and societal cost, suggests an analysis that documents the trends in California over a recent decade.
In the new study, methamphetamine-associated HF (meth-HF) admissions in the state rose by 585% between 2008 and 2018, and charges related those hospitalizations jumped 840%. Cases of HF unrelated to meth fell by 6% during the same period.
The recent explosion in meth-HF hospitalizations has also been costly for society in general, because most cases are younger adults in their most productive, prime earning years, Susan X. Zhao, MD, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, California, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
“Over the past 11 years, especially since 2018, it has really started to take off, with a pretty dramatic rise. And it happened without much attention, because when we think about drugs, we think about acute overdose and not so much about the chronic, smouldering, long-term effects,” said Zhao, who is lead author on the study published July 13 in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.
“It’s really affecting a section of the population that is not supposed to be having heart failure problems. I think it is going to continue for the next decade until we put a stop to the parent problem, which is methamphetamine,” Zhao said. “We’re at the beginning, even though the rise has been pretty dramatic. The worst is yet to come.”
Under the Radar
Methamphetamine-associated HF has been a growing problem for many years but has largely been “flying under the radar” because HF hospitalization data focus on Medicare-age patients, not the overwhelmingly younger meth-HF population, the report notes.
“We have to get this message out. Many of my patients with meth heart failure had no idea this would happen to them. They didn’t know,” Zhao said. “Once I tell them that this is what methamphetamines will do to you after years and years of use, they say they wish someone had told them.”
Zhao and her colleagues looked at HF admission data collected by California’s Health and Human Services Agency to assess meth-HF trends and disease burden. They identified 1,033,076 HF hospitalizations during the decade, of which 42,565 (4.12%) were for meth-HF.
Patients hospitalized with meth-HF had a mean age of 49.6 years, compared with 72.2 for the other patients admitted with HF (P < .001). Virtually all of the patients hospitalized for meth-HF were younger than 65 years: 94.5%, compared with 30% for the other HF patients (P < .001).
Hospitalized patients with meth-HF were mostly men, their prevalence of 80% contrasting with 52.4% for patients with non-meth-related HF (P < .001).
Rates of hospitalization for meth-HF steadily increased during the study period. The age-adjusted rate of meth-HF hospitalization per 100,000 rose from 4.1 in 2008 to 28.1 in 2018. The rate of hospitalization for HF unrelated to meth actually declined, going from 342.3 in 2008 to 321.6 in 2018.
Charges for hospitalizations related to meth-HF shot up more than eight times, from $41.5 million in 2008 to $390.2 million in 2018. In contrast, charges for other HF hospitalizations rose by only 82%, from $3.5 billion to $6.3 billion.
Multiple Layers of Prevention
Zhao proposed ways that clinicians can communicate with their patients who are using or considering to use meth. “There are multiple layers of prevention. For people who are thinking of using meth, they need to get the message that something really bad can happen to them years down the road. They’re not going to die from it overnight, but it will damage the heart slowly,” she said.
The next layer of prevention can potentially help meth users who have not yet developed heart problems, Zhao said. “This would be the time to say, ‘you’re so lucky, your heart is still good. It’s time to stop because people like you, a few years from now are going to die prematurely from a very horrible, very suffering kind of death’.”
Importantly, in meth users who have already developed HF, even then it may not be too late to reverse the cardiomyopathy and symptoms. For up to a third of people with established meth-HF, “if they stop using meth, if they take good cardiac medications, and if the heart failure is in an early enough course, their heart can entirely revert to normal,” Zhao said, citing an earlier work from her and her colleagues.
Currently, methamphetamine abuse has taken especially strong root in rural areas in California and the midwest. But Zhao predicts it will soon become prevalent throughout the United States.
Spotlight on an “Epidemic”
The rapid growth of the methamphetamine “epidemic” has been well-documented in the United States and around the world, observes an accompanying editorial from Pavan Reddy, MD, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai Morningside, New York City, and Uri Elkayam, MD, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
They contend that more attention has been given to opioid overdose deaths; meth abuse does not seem to command the same attention, likely because meth is not as strongly associated with acute overdose.
But meth, write Reddy and Elkayam, “is a different drug with its own M.O., equally dangerous and costly to society but more insidious in nature, its effects potentially causing decades of mental and physical debilitation before ending in premature death.”
The current study “has turned a spotlight on a public health crisis that has grown unfettered for over two decades,” and is a call for the “medical community to recognize and manage cases of meth-HF with a comprehensive approach that addresses both mental and physical illness,” they conclude “Only then can we hope to properly help these patients and with that, reduce the socioeconomic burden of meth-HF.”
A Quietly Building Crisis
The sharp rise in meth-HF hospitalizations is an expected reflection of the methamphetamine crisis, which has been quietly building over the last few years, addiction psychiatrist Corneliu N. Stanciu, MD, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.
“This new version of methamphetamines looks like ice and is more potent and toxic” than former versions traditionally made in home-built labs,” he said. Lately the vast majority of methamphetamines in the United States have come from Mexico, are less expensive with higher purity, “and can be manufactured in greater quantities.”
Some patients with opioid use disorder (OUD) also inject methamphetamines, which can make OUD treatment clinics good places to screen for meth abuse and educate about its cardiovascular implications, Stanciu said.
“Just as addiction treatment centers present an opportunity to implement cardiac screening and referrals,” he said, “cardiology visits and hospitalizations such as those for meth-HF also present a golden opportunity for involvement of substance use disorder interventions and referrals to get patients into treatment and prevent further damage through ongoing use.”
Zhao, Reddy, Eklayam, and Stanciu report no relevant financial relationships.