In March 2012, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office reported that Whitney Houston’s official cause of death was accidental drowning. Cocaine use and heart disease were contributing factors in her death.
The coroner believes that cocaine use caused Whitney to suffer heart problems (she already had heart disease), which led her to become unconscious. Bruises on her forehead, chest, and upper lip suggest that she fell into the bathtub, where she drowned.
The six-time Grammy winner also had marijuana, the prescription drugs Xanax and Flexeril, and the over-the-counter medicine Benadryl in her bloodstream, though the coroner does not believe they played a role in her death.
Cocaine Can Lead to Scary Side Effects
Cocaine is a stimulant—a class of drugs that elevate mood, boost feelings of well-being and euphoria, and increase energy and alertness. Stimulants make a person feel good by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, but they also have some nasty side effects. Short-term effects can include increased body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; dilated pupils; nausea; blurred vision; muscle spasms; and confusion.
With repeated use, cocaine can lead to addiction (something Whitney struggled with for years), which changes how the brain works and makes it more difficult to feel any pleasure at all. People who abuse cocaine are forced to take more and more of the drug to experience the same effects as they did at first. Regularly snorting cocaine can lead to other long-term effects such as a hoarse voice, loss of the sense of smell, nosebleeds, and a chronically runny nose. Whitney’s famous voice was noticeably damaged in recent years, and the autopsy showed she had a hole inside her nose from repeated cocaine use.
Cocaine and Heart Disease
Another long-term effect of abusing cocaine is heart damage. Stimulants cause the body’s blood vessels to narrow, limiting blood flow and forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood through the body. It also restricts blood flow to the heart, killing some of the heart muscle.
Because the effects of cocaine are worse on arteries that are already damaged, people who have heart disease—like Whitney did—suffer most from the effects. The chance of having heart trouble, such as a heart attack, also increases.
Unfortunately, Whitney’s cocaine abuse ultimately led her to suffer the worst effect of the drug—death. We hope that people can learn from her experience and avoid the same tragedy.
Did Whitney’s death change the way you or your friends think about drugs? Tell us in the comments how her death affected you.
“You can do it!” and a sprained ankle were what Olympic gymnast, Kerri Strug, took with her to the mat as she landed the vault to help win Team USA’s first women’s gymnastics gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. Nothing could keep this athlete from performing to her fullest ability.
Why should you want to know more about Kerri? This courageous athlete was just 14 and the youngest Olympian at the 1992 summer Olympic Games, who went on to win a Gold medal at the 1996 summer Olympics. Since she was 6 years old, Kerri dreamed of being an Olympian and trained for 12 years to achieve this goal. During those years, she made sacrifices and even moved away from her family and friends to train with her famous coach, Bela Karolyi. Most importantly, each of those 12 years was spent working hard—drug free.
We had the privilege of interviewing Kerri (pictured right) about her journey to Olympic gold and what advice she’d give teens, athletes or not.
Sara Bellum Blog (SBB): Fill in the blank: Participating in sports makes me feel ____.
Kerri Strug: Alive. Being athletic is important because it is good for your long-term health and helps you learn life skills such as dedication, perseverance, and mental toughness.
SBB: What motivated you when you were training?
Kerri: I was motivated by the self-satisfaction I got when I set a goal and attained it.
SBB: What words of motivation can you offer teens?
Kerri: I think teens need to find a passion; set goals, and then go after them.
SBB: What did achieving your goal by winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics mean to you?
Kerri: After 12 long years of training and numerous sacrifices…I got what I wanted so badly. There is no better feeling than working hard for something and thinking it is not really possible; and then it becomes a reality.
SBB: Your gold medal was the product of your years of training, hard work, perseverance and passion for the sport—all drug-free. What do you think about professional athletes who have used performance-enhancing drugs?
Kerri: I think a world class athlete is not one that holds a world record; but rather one that shows courage when faced with adversity, leads by example, and puts their team in front of themselves. I do not understand where the athletes that take performance enhancing drugs are coming from. It would never occur to me to cheat or to hurt my body in order to get ahead.
SBB: What advice do you have for teens involved with sports who may feel pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs?
Kerri: Focus on yourself and your capabilities. Not everyone is going to be in the NBA or the Olympics, but being true to yourself is what will matter most for the rest of your life.
SBB: So, where do you go from winning an Olympic Gold Medal at age 18? What are you up to now? Kerri: I am still constantly setting new goals for myself—running marathons, learning to dance, giving back, and hope to one day become a terrific mother and lots of other things.
Today Kerri lives and works in Washington, D.C. In her free time, Kerri enjoys working with charities, traveling the world for special events, and cheering on young athletes as they go after their own dreams.
Many people who are in recovery from drug abuse tell their story to try and help others. The latest celebrity to talk about his struggles with drugs—cocaine and alcohol—is singer Elton John. He recently gave interviews about the release of his new book. Here are some things Elton said about his life addicted to cocaine, which he quit using in the 1990s.
- He “wasted” that part of his life because all he was concerned about was the drug: “I was a drug addict and self-absorbed.”
- In his addicted state, Elton didn’t care about friends or family, even those who were dying of AIDS during the peak of the AIDS epidemic.
- He made risky decisions about sex—and feels lucky that he isn’t infected with HIV today: “When you take a drug and you take a drink [of alcohol] … you think you're invincible.”
- Memories still haunt him, even after about 20 years in recovery: “I still dream, twice a week at least, that I've taken cocaine and I have it up my nose. And it's very vivid and it's very upsetting, but at least it's a wake-up call.”
- When he started using cocaine, Elton thought it would help him overcome his shyness and open up to people; in the end, it isolated him from everyone in his life.
Learn More and Sound Off NIDA devoted a whole campaign to how drug abuse can lead people to make risky decisions and put themselves at risk for contracting HIV. Read all the facts about the effects of cocaine on the brain and body. Comment! What do you think about celebs who open up about drug abuse?
Hello, you last heard from me when Michael Jackson died, although I’m behind the scenes at NIDA almost every day. This time, I’d like to talk about the news that famous cyclist Lance Armstrong has given up his battle against charges that he used steroids to improve his cycling skills. This is not an admission that he used steroids, but it is major news because the Tour de France will take away all seven of his titles—he will probably return his trophies, and his name will be removed from the official records. Whenever something like this happens, NIDA gets calls from reporters and from the public wanting to learn more about steroid use.
So what’s the fuss about? First of all, everyone agrees Lance Armstrong has done a lot of good in this world. In 1996, he was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his stomach, lungs, and brain. Doctors were not sure he would live. But he fought back, and when he was better he started a foundation that has raised close to $500 million to help people with cancer.
About the steroids: Only Lance Armstrong knows the full story behind the accusations. But the news gives us all a chance to step back and look at the reasons why people so strongly oppose using steroids to improve athletic ability—especially since so many gifted athletes have admitted to using them, including the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGwire, whose record-breaking 62nd home run made big baseball news in 1998.
SBB has discussed steroids several times, so I don’t need to tell you how much they can hurt your health.
So why do smart and talented athletes risk their health and happiness this way? The same question could be asked about all drugs. Although most teens stay away from steroids, many teens use other drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and stimulants. Do they think they’ll be happier, more popular, or smarter by doing so?
Science shows that taking drugs doesn’t get you any of those things. Even professional athletes who take steroids still have to work out and train 24/7 to get any results. The best way to achieve strength, popularity, or success in school is to work hard, take care of yourself, and be the best person you can be—the real, natural YOU.
As for Lance Armstrong, if he did use steroids, he might experience more health problems as he gets older. For now, he has publicly stated that he wants to move forward with his life to devote himself to raising his five kids, fighting cancer, and attempting to be the fittest 40-year-old on the planet. Now, he says he is drug free and wants to be the best person he can be—naturally. Soon, news reporters will stop calling us about Lance Armstrong, but NIDA will keep working hard to let kids know the truth about steroids and other drugs.
Update: Since Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles, he cut ties with his Livestrong Charity. On January 17, 2013 the world saw him openly admit to steroid use in an televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.
After major league Hall of Famer Tony Gwynne of the San Diego Padres was diagnosed with parotid cancer, or cancer of the salivary gland, Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg announced his decision to give up smokeless tobacco, or “dip.” Gwynne was Strasburg’s hero growing up—and he made a conscious decision to copy his hero’s every move as an aspiring professional baseball player, even the “dip” habit.
Just like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco contains nicotine, a highly addictive substance. Whether you smoke or chew it, tobacco has been proven to cause cancer.
Use of dip can lead to mouth cancer affecting the lips and gums, along with glands called the parotid glands, which pump saliva into your mouth. Juices produced from the dip contain heavy metals that, with repeated use, may lead to esophageal and pancreatic cancer—two very aggressive forms of the disease. Treatment can require several surgeries that leave the face and jaw disfigured, and in the most serious cases, it may even require removal of the jaw.
Sounds pretty scary, but not everyone is thinking of the consequences. The biggest appeal for young people to take up the habit is often through sports, kind of ironic since dip is definitely not healthy or good for athletic performance.
Strasburg’s announcement that he wants to give quit the habit may help change this unhealthy part of baseball culture. He doesn’t want young people who may admire his playing skills to think that this addictive habit has anything to do with his game. Strasburg admits that quitting is tough, and is taking things one step at a time. Now it’s Major League Baseball’s turn. Despite the fact that chewing tobacco has already been banned in Little League, high school and college play, the MLB isn’t banning use of dip, yet.
Sometimes, it takes a hero to throw the first pitch and help people understand that winners don’t dip.
Child actresses turned luxury fashion designers Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen recently announced the release of patent Nile crocodile skin backpacks, some of which are covered with fake prescription drugs, as part of their fashion line.
These limited-edition backpacks—only 12 were made—were designed by renowned artist Damien Hirst and will cost an astronomical $55,000 each.
Prescription Drugs as Fashion?
While the price might be outrageous, what about the message? Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are already among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders—does this bag glamorize the problem?
In an interesting twist, the retailer has said that a portion of the proceeds from these bags will be donated to UNICEF—a children’s rights organization that works on issues such as immunizations, childhood development, gender rights, and HIV/AIDS transmission around the world—but it is unclear how much will be donated.
What do you think? Fashion is about creativity and expressing one’s individuality, and in the world of couture and high fashion, designers like to push the envelope…so is this “fashion statement” from Mary Kate and Ashley enough to influence how someone thinks about drug abuse? Or, is a purse just a purse? Does the fact that a portion of the proceeds will go to charity influence your opinion?
For more information about prescription drug abuse, check out PEERx.
Many of you probably heard that the European tour just launched by the talented Amy Winehouse has been canceled after fans watched the diva stumble under the lights in Serbia. Reports say audience members in Belgrade booed her off the stage Saturday night just a few songs into the first concert of the tour when she couldn’t even remember the lyrics to her own songs. The Grammy winner was scheduled for a dream tour—to Istanbul, Athens, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Romania—but those dates have all been cancelled. The Serbian media called the concert a "scandal," with Belgrade’s daily newspaper calling it "the worst performance in the history of Belgrade."
It is ironic that Amy Winehouse became famous for her song "Rehab," where she sang: "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said 'No, no, no.'" After the song became a hit, she actually said “yes” to drug and alcohol rehab in London, where she stayed for a month. If she has turned again to drugs, people will ask the same questions about if rehab works, and why big stars risk everything for drugs…
We’ve talked about rehab before, but Amy Winehouse’s struggle highlights what rehab is all about: addiction is a chronic disease, which means it has to be managed throughout your whole life. People relapse to drug addiction just like they do with other chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. To successfully treat a chronic disease, you have to change deeply imbedded behaviors—and that takes practice. For example, a diabetic has to learn how to manage a restricted diet, just as a person struggling with addiction has to learn how to manage cravings. Relapse does not mean treatment failure, but that treatment needs to be adjusted or changed altogether.
Sadly, many people are able to hide their addiction from the world and never get help. For famous people, every slip is recorded by fans and posted for millions to see. But famous or not, being successful in recovery takes a lot of support—which it sounds like Amy Winehouse has. Her representative put out this statement: "Everyone involved wishes to do everything they can to help her return to her best and she will be given as long as it takes for this to happen."
R.I.P Amy Winehouse 1983-2011
NIDA stays up to date on drug use trends. At the end of 2012, we noticed a huge spike in the number of searches on the NIDA for Teens Web site for information on “Molly,” a club drug made from MDMA, the pure form of Ecstasy.
Mostly, Molly is abused at clubs and concerts and is referred to in electronic music. Now, rap and hip hop are mentioning the drug more often.
In 2012, several major artists released songs that referenced Molly:
- Kanye West, “Mercy”: “Something about Mary, she gone off that Molly / Now the whole party is melted like Dalí.”
- Trinidad James, “All Gold Everything”: “Popped a Molly and now I’m sweating, woo!”
- Rihanna, “Diamonds”: “Palms rise to the universe, as we moonshine and Molly / Feel the warmth, we’ll never die / We’re like diamonds in the sky.”
While many of these songs focus on the euphoria Molly can cause, they leave out the dangers it poses to the brain and body. To find out indepth information about how Molly affects the brain, check out this three-part series on MDMA.
Molly may be a hot topic in pop culture, but most teens steer clear of the drug. In 2012, NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey found that only 7.2% of 12th graders had used Ecstasy in their lifetimes—a 4.5% decrease from 2011.
Tell us: Does rap music influence what you and your friends do, like what you wear? Do references in rap songs make you want to seek out the facts?
You might have heard the news that former first lady Betty Ford recently died at the age of 93. Many of you reading this might never have heard of Betty Ford; after all, she became First Lady way back in 1974. But maybe you’ve heard of the Betty Ford Center, a rehab center in Rancho Mirage, California, where many celebrities have gone to seek treatment for their addictions. You also may not know why she built the center.
Not long after Richard Nixon resigned from office during the Watergate scandal, Jerry Ford suddenly became President and the family got thrust into public life. Betty Ford wrote in her memoirs that her family never wanted that level of fame, but accepted it to help the country through difficult times.
Over the years, as the spotlight on Betty Ford and her family grew, she began to drink more heavily on top of a dependency on pain pills, which started in 1964 when she got a prescription to relieve constant pain from a neck injury and a pinched nerve. We now know that mixing pills and alcohol is a big mistake. Once she was First Lady, people began to notice that when she spoke she was slowly slurring her words and she seemed to have no energy. After her husband’s presidency was over, Betty Ford left public life and soon announced she was addicted to pills and alcohol. In her memoirs, she tells the story about how her family confronted her about her addiction, which at first she was not happy about. Later, she thanked them and became a champion for people struggling with the disease.
Her openness about her addiction was shocking to some people. Forty years ago, people tried to hide the fact they had an addiction problem, but she bravely brought it into the light, giving others the courage to ask for help with their own drug abuse and addiction problems. She entered rehab and, with treatment, learned to manage her addictions. A few years later she opened a rehab center in her name to help other people. Today the Betty Ford Center is a thriving treatment center, and because of its closeness to Los Angeles, it has become a rehab center for many famous people, including Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey, Jr., Johnny Cash, Elizabeth Taylor, and many others.
So SBB says thank you Betty Ford for having the courage to use your personal story to educate people about addiction, and for bringing it from the darkness into the light, from shame and despair to treatment and hope.
How did she have the courage to bring her addiction out in the open? She has been quoted as saying, “The public needed to know that this didn’t have to be swept under the rug anymore, that this needed to be open and discussed.”
Recovery from addiction doesn’t mean completing a rehabilitation program and then you are cured. Addiction is a brain disease that requires commitment and effort every single day to stay off drugs.
It can also mean more than one round of treatment—and usually does.
In April 2013, “Glee” star Cory Monteith checked himself into a treatment facility for drug addiction. This is the second time the actor has been in rehab.
When Cory was 19, he went to rehab after developing a severe drug addiction and dropping out of school. He went back to using drugs soon after, and eventually became so desperate he stole money from a family member. His family gave him the choice to either stop using drugs, or they would press charges for the theft.
Cory sought help to stop using drugs and began working with an acting coach. Just 2 years ago, he received his high school diploma, while starring as high school student Finn Hudson on “Glee.”
Now 30 years old, Cory has chosen to refocus on his recovery. We’re not sure if he was using drugs, or if he simply was struggling with the urge to use again. But we do know that he’s making the smart decision to put his health first.
Cory’s out of rehab now, and we wish him the best in his recovery journey. Recovery from addiction is a lifelong journey that sometimes requires multiple treatment episodes, just like some other illnesses like diabetes or heart disease. But if you have a problem, you’re never too young to start addressing it.
NIDA continues to research the science of addiction, so that we can learn how to better prevent, manage, and eventually cure this disease.
What do you think about Cory Monteith’s second stint in rehab?
While we are still not sure exactly what killed Amy Winehouse, many people are speculating that it had something to do with her admitted drug and alcohol abuse. As we blogged a few weeks ago, Winehouse was booed off the stage in her last concert. Now she may be among what some call the “27 Club”—famous people who died at the age of 27 from drug and alcohol abuse, including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, all major music heroes of their times. Coincidence?
Not really. As their fame and wealth increased, so did their access to drugs and so maybe, too, their belief that they were outside the rules, invincible. But that wasn’t true. By the time they were in their mid-twenties it is likely their bodies started to rebel, screaming enough is enough!
Going to rehab is a smart move, even if it takes several tries. Rehab is hard. It calls for major changes in an addicted person’s life beyond stopping drug use—like a change of friendships (maybe even of a best friend or partner), not to mention a change of lifestyle and even where you live. When you’re “on top,” too much change might be harder to accept.
Still, the alternative is worse—just ask the people who loved Amy Winehouse. She was a great talent who could really have moved the world. To quote one of our 2010 GRAMMY winners from their video "Drug Free State of Mind," "…we all shootin’ stars basically waitin’ to be seen…"
What is your talent that is waiting to be seen? Make a plan not to waste it!
After the news hit about the death of Michael Jackson and all the speculation about his possible prescription drug use, the NIDA press office phones rang off the hook. Why? News reporters wanted information on prescription drug misuse and abuse.
We talked to the NIDA Communications Director, Carol Krause (pictured right), about how they handle calls like that.
Sara Bellum Blog (SBB): How many calls does NIDA get when news like this hits?
Carol: Well it depends on the celebrity and how definite the news is. With Anna Nicole Smith, speculation was immediate that drug abuse was involved, so we got a lot of calls from the press right away. With Heath Ledger, people weren’t so sure, and the inquiries came gradually, over a period of weeks.
SBB: And Michael Jackson?
Carol: Within a few hours of his death, the NIDA press office got maybe a dozen calls from major news reporters wanting information on prescription drug abuse. They were doing research in case toxicology reports came back saying that medication misuse contributed to the pop icon’s death.
SBB: And what do you tell them?
Carol: We treat this like any other inquiry. We give them facts. The fact is that between the years of 1999 and 2005, the number of accidental deaths from drug overdoses in this country more than doubled.
SBB: Really? Why?
Carol: The biggest problem is the increased misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers—opioid narcotics like Vicodin and OxyContin.
SBB: Is this a problem with teenagers?
Carol: Absolutely. For the past 5 years, 1 in 10 high school seniors have reported they use Vicodin without a prescription—1 in 20 have used OxyContin.
SBB: Why isn’t the press reporting this?
Carol: Oh they are. The question is—are teens listening?
SBB: I’d like to think teens are smart enough to know that using medications without a prescription can be dangerous. What is the take away lesson from Michael Jackson’s death?
Carol: That we don’t need a tragedy like this to learn how to make smart decisions about your health. The information you need is right here on the NIDA website.
A lot of celebrities are making headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. First we hear about tennis star Andre Agassi admitting to meth (a toxic stimulant drug) use when he was on the tennis circuit (what was he thinking?) and now Tiger Woods, with everyone speculating about his personal problems. All of this news has made SBB think a lot about how we make choices in our lives. Why do intelligent, successful people make bad choices when they have so much to lose—even (and maybe especially) superstars?
We look at this question of personal choices and self control a lot at NIDA while we study drug abuse. Initially, taking drugs is a choice. Over time, drug abuse can become a disease we call addiction. But what makes us risk the consequences of making the choice to try drugs? Not everyone becomes addicted to them, but many do, so why do people risk it?
To find answers, scientists are studying the brain chemical called dopamine. Dopamine gives us a feeling of euphoria, a physical surge of pleasure in response to things we enjoy, which are different for different people. From healthy pleasures, like eating a good meal or scoring a goal, to unhealthy ones, like doing drugs or stealing from stores. Once you become addicted to that rush of dopamine it is hard to stop the behavior. And, once you become addicted it is hard to feel pleasure from the simple things in life—like a great piece of music, holding hands with someone you really like, spending a fun day with the family, or having a laugh with friends.
So how do we avoid making bad choices in the first place? SBB suggests focusing on the genuine pleasures in your life. Fill your day with them. Go shopping with your sister, watch a game with friends, join a club at school, see a movie, read a great book…Protect the simple pleasures in your life—and when it comes to drugs, maybe think about what you might lose.
Since the death of Michael Jackson in 2009, “propofol” has been mentioned often in the news. The substance was found to be the cause of his death and was the center of the highly publicized trial of his doctor.
So, it’s no surprise there is a lot of curiosity about propofol. NIDA received questions about it during last year’s Drug Facts Chat Day.
During Chat Day, Cam from California asked about the basics—
Is propofol a drug?
Yes. Propofol is a common type of anesthetic—a drug that doctors use to “put people to sleep” for surgery. It is given to patients through an “intravenous drip,” (called an “IV” for short) that goes through a special needle into a patient’s vein, so the medicine goes directly into the bloodstream.
Doctors who give patients propofol are generally known as “anesthesiologists” and have special training. These experts set up the IV, make sure the patient is “sleeping” comfortably, and then carefully monitor vital signs (like heart rate, breathing, etc.) while the patient has surgery.
Doctors like using propofol because it leaves the body very quickly, which allows the patient to wake up after surgery more rapidly, without bad side effects. Propofol can be a useful drug when it’s given by people who are properly trained. But like many prescription drugs, it can be very harmful if used inappropriately. Propofol should be given only in a hospital setting where the patient can be closely monitored.
A Lost Legend
Michael Jackson died of acute propofol intoxication. Additional drugs found in Michael’s system were the depressants midazolam and diazepam, the painkiller Lidocaine, and the stimulant ephedrine. His doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of causing the singer’s death by giving Michael the propofol that caused him to stop breathing. By helping Michael abuse drugs—even if it was to “help him sleep”—he contributed to the loss of a legend. Michael’s untimely death was mourned by millions of people.
Musician Elton John recently said he’s been helping rapper pal Eminem work through his problems with substance abuse.
Eminem (aka Slim Shady and, before that, Marshall Mathers from Detroit, MI), was in treatment for substance abuse in 2005. Since then, he has abused prescription drugs like Vicodin, Ambien, and Valium. Some bad things happened after 2005, and maybe that led him to start abusing drugs again. In December 2007, he was devastated when his marriage ended and his closest friend and fellow rapper DeShaun “Proof” Holton died. Eminem was even hospitalized for overdosing on methadone. Then in early 2008, he began a program to recover from his addiction, and he says he’s been off drugs since April 2008.
Skip to now…if you read the lyrics on his latest album, called “Relapse,” Eminem continues to glorify drug use and violence, even while he himself is trying to stay sober. So, here’s a question for you:
Does artistic expression mean you can say whatever you want, even if you know you could be influencing others to hurt themselves by taking drugs?
Elton John has acknowledged his own problems with substance abuse in the past. He says he wants to be there now to help anyone who has addiction problems. It’s good that Eminem has a more experienced artist like Elton John to guide him through this personal struggle. Wouldn’t it be great if this true friend could also help Eminem use his talents to contribute a positive musical message to the world?
On February 12, the 54th annual GRAMMY Awards paid tribute to music legend Whitney Houston, who died the previous night at the young age of 48. Early reports suggest that a deadly mix of prescription drugs and alcohol were the cause of Houston’s death, though toxicology results are still pending. It is well known that the six-time GRAMMY winner battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Michael Jackson…Amy Winehouse…and now Whitney Houston. Legendary singers who seemed to have it all—talent, charisma, fame, money, power, family support. And yet, they could not overcome their addiction to drugs. That’s because addiction doesn’t care if you’re famous or rich—once you’re in its grip, the experience is similar for many of the 20 million people in the United States today who struggle with this brain disease.
Why Do People Continue To Take Drugs?
Why do people continue to abuse drugs and, in some cases, combine them with alcohol, when so many others have fallen from doing so? Although Houston entered rehab three times, she is a perfect example of why addiction is defined as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary—but after that, a combination of genetics and environment will write the rest of the story. Some people will become addicted and will find it impossible to stop taking drugs without help. Addiction changes the brain’s structure and how it works. Brain imaging studies from people who are addicted to drugs show physical changes that not only affect feelings of pleasure but also judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and self-control. That may help explain the compulsive and destructive behaviors that characterize addiction.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Prescription Drugs?
One of the greatest myths about prescription drugs is that, because doctors prescribe them, they are safer to abuse than illegal drugs. But as prescription drugs have become more available, more people are literally dying from their abuse. In fact, every year in the United States, more people die from an accidental overdose of painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined.
The word “prescription” is not the same as the word “safe,” especially when alcohol is added, which can affect heart rhythm, slow respiration, and even lead to death.
Resources To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse
Although we can be saddened by Houston’s passing, we can also take a thoughtful look at her experience and learn from it.
NIDA offers many resources so you can learn the science behind what prescription drug abuse does to your brain and body. Are you curious how the choice to abuse prescription drugs could play out? Check out NIDA’s Choose Your Path videos to put yourself in the shoes of a story’s main character.
We do not yet know exactly how Whitney Houston died. We can only guess that her drug abuse and addiction may have contributed to her death. We do know that addiction was a major blow to her life, career, family, friends, and fans, all of whom are experiencing the sad consequences.
The news story said Mark McGwire's voice "cracked with emotion" when he finally admitted to the world he had used steroids for 10 years, including the season he broke the home run record, hitting 70 slammers in 1998. He is probably not just embarrassed by this, but also concerned about his health, since steroids can cause problems even after you go off them.
There are sometimes medical uses for steroids, such as to help people with cancer or AIDS build up lost muscle mass. But many people-especially those who want to improve their athletic performance-abuse anabolic steroids to "bulk up," typically taking higher doses than people who take them for medical reasons. Steroid abuse among athletes, especially baseball players, has become such a problem that a few years ago the U.S. Congress held a special investigation. Now, major league baseball executives are working to "clean it up," which Mr. McGwire now says is a good thing.
"I wish I had never touched steroids…It was foolish and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era." —Mark McGwire
Taking steroids is not a good bargain. Because even though they might make you stronger in the short-run, the price you pay can be much too high. So what can happen? Here's just a short list of the possible side effects:
- Stunt your growth and cause bad acne.
- Cause vicious mood swings (ever heard of "'roid rage"?)
- For guys, abusing steroids can lead to shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts.
- For girls, abusing steroids lead to growth of facial hair, male-pattern baldness, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, and a permanently deepened voice.
The good news is that steroid use is not a huge problem among teens—as many teens have a healthy game plan. Still, somewhere between 1-2% of high schoolers, many being athletes, have tried them, mostly to enhance sports performance. Did you know that NIDA has a Web section on steroids with information just for teens? Check out Drug Facts - Anabolic Steroids. Also take a look at this YouTube video starring one of our scientists here at NIDA. Mark McGwire has done a lot of good things with his life since leaving baseball. He has a foundation that helps abused children, and he works with the National Kidney Foundation. We will have to wait and see how things turn out for him, as people debate how to handle the many awards he has won over the years and his possible selection into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But scientists at NIDA will be looking at something more important: what are the long-lasting health effects of so much steroid use, and what is the best way to prevent people from abusing steroids in the first place? What do you think?