Analysis of Longitudinal Studies With Repeated Outcome Measures: Adjusting for Time-Dependent Confounding Using Conventional Methods

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Abstract

Estimation of causal effects of time-varying exposures using longitudinal data is a common problem in epidemiology. When there are time-varying confounders, which may include past outcomes, affected by prior exposure, standard regression methods can lead to bias. Methods such as inverse probability weighted estimation of marginal structural models have been developed to address this problem. However, in this paper we show how standard regression methods can be used, even in the presence of time-dependent confounding, to estimate the total effect of an exposure on a subsequent outcome by controlling appropriately for prior exposures, outcomes, and time-varying covariates. We refer to the resulting estimation approach as sequential conditional mean models (SCMMs), which can be fitted using generalized estimating equations. We outline this approach and describe how including propensity score adjustment is advantageous. We compare the causal effects being estimated using SCMMs and marginal structural models, and we compare the two approaches using simulations. SCMMs enable more precise inferences, with greater robustness against model misspecification via propensity score adjustment, and easily accommodate continuous exposures and interactions. A new test for direct effects of past exposures on a subsequent outcome is described.

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