Background: Different hypotheses have been proposed in life course epidemiology on how a time-varying exposure can affect health or disease later in life. Researchers are often interested in investigating the probability of these hypotheses based on observed life course data. However, current techniques based on model/variable selection do not provide a direct estimate of this probability. We propose an alternative technique for a continuous exposure, using a Bayesian approach that has specific advantages, to investigate which life course hypotheses are supported by the observed data.
Methods: We demonstrate the technique, the relevant life course exposure model (RLM), using simulations. We also analyse data from a case-control study on risk factors of oral cancer, with repeated measurements of betel quid chewing across life. We investigate the relative importance of chewing one quid of betel per day, at three life periods: ≤20 years, 21-40 years and above 40 years of age, on the risk of developing oral cancer.
Results: RLM was able to correctly identify the life course hypothesis under which the data were simulated. Results from the case-control study showed that there was 74.3% probability that betel quid exposure earlier in life, compared with later, results in higher odds of developing oral cancer later in life.
Conclusions: RLM is a useful option to identify the life course hypothesis supported by the observed data prior to the estimation of a causal effect.