Whitney Houston: How cocaine use compounds heart disease

Whitney Houston performs in Anaheim in 1994. On Thursday, Los Angeles health officials said that the singer died in an accidental drowning. Cocaine and heart disease were also factors in her death.
(Kevin P. Casey / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles County Coroner’s office reported Thursday that singer Whitney Houston’s death at the Beverly Hills Hotel was an accidental drowning.

Cocaine use and heart disease were contributing factors in her death, officials said Thursday.

“She may have had a heart attack” that rendered her unconscious, leading to her drowning, said Ed Winter, deputy chief of coroner investigations.

Cocaine’s negative effects on cardiac health are well-established. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001, Dr. Richard A. Lange and Dr. L. David Hillis of University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas explained how the popular drug can hurt the heart.


By increasing heart rate and blood pressure, they wrote, cocaine amps up demand for oxygen. It also constricts coronary arteries and speeds clotting in arteries leading to the heart. All three can restrict the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart, resulting in tissue death.

People with preexisting coronary vascular disease — such as Houston — may suffer the effects most. Lange and Hillis reported that cocaine induces constriction in normal and diseased segments of the coronary arteries, but that its effects are more pronounced in the diseased segments. As a result, they noted, “cocaine users with atherosclerotic coronary artery disease are probably at greater risk for an ischemic event after cocaine use than are cocaine users without coronary artery disease.”

Los Angeles County health officials did not say how much cocaine had been detected in Houston’s blood.