A new tool for epidemiology: the usefulness of dynamic-agent models in understanding place effects on health

Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Jul 1;168(1):1-8. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwn118. Epub 2008 May 13.


A major focus of recent work on the spatial patterning of health has been the study of how features of residential environments or neighborhoods may affect health. Place effects on health emerge from complex interdependent processes in which individuals interact with each other and their environment and in which both individuals and environments adapt and change over time. Traditional epidemiologic study designs and statistical regression approaches are unable to examine these dynamic processes. These limitations have constrained the types of questions asked, the answers received, and the hypotheses and theoretical explanations that are developed. Agent-based models and other systems-dynamics models may help to address some of these challenges. Agent-based models are computer representations of systems consisting of heterogeneous microentities that can interact and change/adapt over time in response to other agents and features of the environment. Using these models, one can observe how macroscale dynamics emerge from microscale interactions and adaptations. A number of challenges and limitations exist for agent-based modeling. Nevertheless, use of these dynamic models may complement traditional epidemiologic analyses and yield additional insights into the processes involved and the interventions that may be most useful.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Exercise
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Residence Characteristics*