National News

Naomi Breslau, Who Studied Post-Traumatic Stress, Dies at 86

Posted November 14, 2018 3:30 p.m. EST

Naomi Breslau, one of the first scientists to study how the experiences of everyday life can cause serious psychiatric syndromes like post-traumatic stress disorder, died on Oct. 13 in hospice care in Pittsboro, North Carolina. She was 86.

The cause was complications of uterine cancer, her husband, Dr. Glenn C. Davis, said.

Breslau, who was an emeritus professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University, conducted pioneering studies on a broad range of topics in addition to post-traumatic stress disorder, including low birth weight, migraine headaches, sleep disorders and dependence on nicotine.

She paid particular attention to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and its prevalence in the general population.

“Most people think of PTSD as an occupational hazard after military combat, or as a consequence of a relatively rare exposure to a socially shared natural disaster such as a major earthquake,” James C. Anthony, an epidemiologist at Michigan State, said in a telephone interview.

But Breslau examined how often other events in everyday life — such as rape, assault or the sudden unexpected death of a loved one — can lead to PTSD.

“She was the first to show that traumas involving interpersonal violence lead to higher rates of PTSD than other traumas,” Ronald C. Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said in an email.

Breslau also studied the interrelationships of various psychiatric disorders. She found, for instance, that migraine headaches are strongly related to a number of mental disorders, most notably clinical depression, obsession and panic disorders. And she raised the possibility that migraines could cause these disorders — and that these disorders could cause migraines.

“Her calls for research to investigate the extent to which treatment of these mental disorders might lead to reductions in migraine (headaches),” Kessler said, “have been instrumental in shaping contemporary clinical research in this area.”

Breslau also conducted extensive research involving smoking. Her long-range studies among young smokers showed that those with a history of depression were more likely to become dependent on nicotine, and that those who were dependent on nicotine were more likely to become depressed years later.

Naomi Zeidel was born on April 9, 1932, in what is now Afula, Israel, to Shlomo and Shoshana (Fleischman) Zeidel, who worked in construction. Her parents were Labor Zionist immigrants from western Ukraine who settled in Palestine during the turbulent time of the British Mandate, which governed Palestine after World War I until 1948, when much of that territory became the newly created state of Israel.

The family, including a brother, Dany, and a sister, Sara, moved to Hadera, a town on the Mediterranean coast. Initially interested in becoming a lawyer, she received her law degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1954. She came to the United States in 1956 to study the administration of justice at New York University, but soon found herself more interested in sociology and received a master’s degree in that subject in 1963.

Her first husband, Dr. Lawrence Breslau, a psychiatrist, moved the family to Cleveland in 1960. They raised three sons, Jonathan, Daniel and Joshua, while she worked toward her Ph.D. in sociology, which she received in 1972 from Case Western Reserve University. She and Breslau were divorced in 1986; he died in 2009.

Naomi Breslau became director of research for the department of psychiatry and research investigator in the division of biostatistics and research epidemiology at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit in 1987. In 2003, she joined the Michigan State faculty.

She married Davis, a research psychiatrist, in 1990. He survives her, as do her three sons; two stepsons, Jason and Galen Davis; and six grandchildren.