PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A new study from the University of Pennsylvania links eroding economic opportunity to opioid deaths. Many have wondered what is causing the opioid epidemic and this study makes a connection that health officials might miss.
Researchers at the University of Penn found when factories close or when there is widespread job loss in a community, deaths from opioid overdoses soar.
The opioid epidemic has hit the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia especially hard, but doctors say substance abuse is everywhere.
Large-scale job losses get some of the blame in a first-of-its-kind study from the University of Penn.
It found that fading economic opportunity was a key force driving opioid addiction and deaths in the United States.
"It's like adding fuel to the fire so the drugs are out there and now you have this force that may push people toward them," Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani from the University of Pennsylvania said.
Lead author Dr. Venkataramani says the research focused on the car industry when automotive plants shut down. But there are parallels that could be drawn for any community with large manufacturing industries where there are big layoffs that impact the identity of a community.
"It's really about the sense of hopelessness and despair that can lead people into this disease," said Dr. Venkataramani.
The study showed that five years after automotive plants closed, opioid overdose deaths were 85% higher than anticipated.
"The way I think of substance abuse disorder is the same way I think of diabetes: that it's a chronic disease that at times in your life can flare up due to stressful events," Dr. Venkataramani said.
Doctors say people suffering from depression, anxiety and major life stress are more vulnerable to addiction, especially when their communities are flooded with easily accessible addictive drugs.
Overdoses are often called deaths of despair. They have been so significant in recent years they are now considered a primary factor in reducing American life expectancy.
The Penn research found white men had the biggest surge in opioid deaths linked to economic downturns.
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