Placing epidemiological results in the context of multiplicity and typical correlations of exposures

J Epidemiol Community Health. 2014 Nov;68(11):1096-100. doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204195. Epub 2014 Jun 12.


Epidemiological studies evaluate multiple exposures, but the extent of multiplicity often remains non-transparent when results are reported. There is extensive debate in the literature on whether multiplicity should be adjusted for in the design, analysis, and reporting of most epidemiological studies, and, if so, how this should be done. The challenges become more acute in an era where the number of exposures that can be studied (the exposome) can be very large. Here, we argue that it can be very insightful to visualize and describe the extent of multiplicity by reporting the number of effective exposures for each category of exposures being assessed, and to describe the distribution of correlation between exposures and/or between exposures and outcomes in epidemiological datasets. The results of new proposed associations can be placed in the context of this background information. An association can be assigned to a percentile of magnitude of effect based on the distribution of effects seen in the field. We offer an example of how such information can be routinely presented in an epidemiological study/dataset using data on 530 exposure and demographic variables classified in 32 categories in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Effects that survive multiplicity considerations and that are large may be prioritized for further scrutiny.

Keywords: BIOSTATISTICS; Environmental epidemiology; Epidemiological methods; GENETIC EPIDEM.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Epidemiologic Research Design*
  • Epidemiologic Studies*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Surveys / methods
  • Nutrition Surveys / statistics & numerical data*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / methods
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care / statistics & numerical data*