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Commentary: Incorporating concepts and methods from causal inference into life course epidemiology

De Stavola, BL; Daniel, RM; (2016) Commentary: Incorporating concepts and methods from causal inference into life course epidemiology. International Journal of Epidemiology , 45 (4) pp. 1006-1010. 10.1093/ije/dyw103. Green open access

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Abstract

The review by Ben-Shlomo et al.1 highlights how life course epidemiology is evolving and adapting to accommodate increasing access to data on novel dimensions and over extended periods. This enriched framework raises ever greater methodological challenges, leaving statisticians like us daunted by the task of translating life course enquiries into suitable analyses of the data at hand. Take for example Figure 4 of Ben-Shlomo et al..1 This is very useful for gaining a ‘big picture’ understanding of a complex area such as ageing, and for establishing which processes may benefit from a more detailed investigation. However, the leap from such a diagram to a specific data analysis should not be (and is not typically) made without greater thought. We will argue in this commentary that some recent developments from the field of modern causal inference may be helpful in this regard. First, in order to state unambiguously the question (or questions) of interest, the potential outcomes framework, a cornerstone of modern causal inference thinking, is invaluable. Then, the conceptual framework should be refined to a causal directed acyclic graph (DAG) relevant to the question, and the causal DAG should be formally interrogated to see if the question can be addressed, and if so how. Indeed, depending on the question, the causal DAG and the data available, we may find that standard statistical methods traditionally used in epidemiology are sufficient; in other settings we may find that more novel techniques are needed. We will discuss each of these points next, mentioning also the issues of missing data and measurement error, as well as highlighting concerns about the difference between the processes which are the focus of investigations and their manifestations in observed data.

Type: Article
Title: Commentary: Incorporating concepts and methods from causal inference into life course epidemiology
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyw103
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw103
Language: English
Additional information: © The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Epidemiological Association This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted reuse, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Keywords: Science & Technology, Life Sciences & Biomedicine, Public, Environmental & Occupational Health, Marginal Structural Models, Mediation Analysis, Measurement-Error, Exposure, Confounder, Variables, Diagrams
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Population Health Sciences > UCL GOS Institute of Child Health
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Population Health Sciences > UCL GOS Institute of Child Health > Population, Policy and Practice Dept
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10050420
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