Cohort studies

Scott Weich and Martin Prince

in Practical Psychiatric Epidemiology

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2003 | ISBN: 9780198515517
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754289 | DOI:
Cohort studies

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A cohort study is one in which the outcome (usually disease status) is ascertained for groups of individuals defined on the basis of their exposure. At the time exposure status is determined, all must be free of the disease. All eligible participants are then followed up over time. Since exposure status is determined before the occurrence of the outcome, a cohort study can clarify the temporal sequence between exposure and outcome, with minimal information bias.

The historical and the population cohort study (Box 9.1) are efficient variants of the classical cohort study described above, which nevertheless retain the essential components of the cohort study design.

The exposure can be dichotomous [i.e. exposed (to obstetric complications at birth) vs. not exposed], or graded as degrees of exposure (e.g. no recent life events, one to two life events, three or more life events). The use of grades of exposure strengthens the results of a cohort study by supporting or refuting the hypothesis that the incidence of the disease increases with increasing exposure to the risk factor; a so-called dose–response relationship. The essential features of a cohort study are: ♦ participants are defined by their exposure status rather than by outcome (as in case–control design); ♦ it is a longitudinal design: exposure status must be ascertained before outcome is known.

The classical cohort study

In a classical cohort study participants are selected for study on the basis of a single exposure of interest. This might be exposure to a relatively rare occupational exposure, such as ionizing radiation (through working in the nuclear power industry). Care must be taken in selecting the unexposed cohort; perhaps those working in similar industries, but without any exposure to radiation. The outcome in this case might be leukaemia. All those in the exposed and unexposed cohorts would need to be free of leukaemia (hence ‘at risk’) on recruitment into the study. The two cohorts would then be followed up for (say) 10 years and rates at which they develop leukaemia compared directly. Classical cohort studies are rare in psychiatric epidemiology. This may be in part because this type of study is especially suited to occupational exposures, which have previously been relatively little studied as causes of mental illness. However, this may change as the high prevalence of mental disorders in the workplace and their negative impact upon productivity are increasingly recognized. The UK Gulf War Study could be taken as one rather unusual example of the genre (Unwin et al. 1999). Health outcomes, including mental health status, were compared between those who were deployed in the Persian Gulf War in 1990–91, those who were later deployed in Bosnia, and an ‘era control group’ who were serving at the time of the Gulf war but were not deployed.

There are two main variations on this classical cohort study design: they are popular as they can, depending on circumstances, be more efficient than the classical cohort design.

The population cohort study

In the classical cohort study, participants are selected on the basis of exposure, and the hypothesis relates to the effect of this single exposure on a health outcome. However, a large cohort or panel of subjects are sometimes recruited and followed up, often over many years, to study multiple exposures and outcomes. No separate comparison group is required as the comparison group is generally an unexposed sub-group of the panel. Examples include the British Doctor's Study in which over 30,000 British doctors were followed up for over 20 years to study the effects of smoking and other exposures on health (Doll et al. 1994), and the Framingham Heart Study, in which residents of a town in Massachusetts, USA have been followed up for 50 years to study risk factors for coronary heart disease (Wolf et al. 1988). The Whitehall and Whitehall II studies in the UK (Fuhrer et al. 1999; Stansfeld et al. 2002) were based again on an occupationally defined cohort, and have led to important findings concerning workplace conditions and both physical and psychiatric morbidity. Birth cohort studies, in which everyone born within a certain chronological interval are recruited, are another example of this type of study. In birth cohorts, participants are commonly followed up at intervals of 5–10 years. Many recent panel studies in the UK and elsewhere have been funded on condition that investigators archive the data for public access, in order that the dataset might be more fully exploited by the wider academic community.

Population cohort studies can test multiple hypotheses, and are far more common than any other type of cohort study. The scope of the study can readily be extended to include mental health outcomes. Thus, both the British Doctor's Study (Doll et al. 2000) and the Framingham Heart Study (Seshadri et al. 2002) have gone on to report on aetiological factors for dementia and Alzheimer's Disease as the cohorts passed into the age groups most at risk for these disorders.

A variant of the population cohort study is one in which those who are prevalent cases of the outcome of interest at baseline are also followed up effectively as a separate cohort in order (a) to study the natural history of the disorder by estimating its maintenance (or recovery) rate, and (b) studying risk factors for maintenance (non-recovery) over the follow-up period (Prince et al. 1998).

Historical cohort studies

In the classical cohort study outcome is ascertained prospectively. Thus, new cases are ascertained over a follow-up period, after the exposure status has been determined. However, it is possible to ascertain both outcome and exposure retrospectively. This variant is referred to as a historical cohort study (Fig. 9.1).

A good example is the work of David Barker in testing his low birth weight hypothesis (Barker et al. 1990; Hales et al. 1991). Barker hypothesized that risk for midlife vascular and endocrine disorders would be determined to some extent by the ‘programming’ of the hypothalamo-pituitary axis through foetal growth in utero. Thus ‘small for dates’ babies would have higher blood pressure levels in adult life, and greater risk for type II diabetes (through insulin resistance). A prospective cohort study would have recruited participants at birth, when exposure (birth weight) would be recorded. They would then be followed up over four or five decades to examine the effect of birth weight on the development of hypertension and type II diabetes. Barker took the more elegant (and feasible) approach of identifying hospitals in the UK where several decades previously birth records were meticulously recorded. He then traced the babies as adults (where they still lived in the same area) and measured directly their status with respect to outcome. The ‘prospective’ element of such studies is that exposure was recorded well before outcome even though both were ascertained retrospectively with respect to the timing of the study.

The historical cohort study has also proved useful in psychiatric epidemiology where it has been used in particular to test the neurodevelopmental hypothesis for schizophrenia (Jones et al. 1994; Isohanni et al. 2001). Jones et al. studied associations between adult-onset schizophrenia and childhood sociodemographic, neurodevelopmental, cognitive, and behavioural factors in the UK 1946 birth cohort; 5362 people born in the week 3–9 March 1946, and followed up intermittently since then. Subsequent onsets of schizophrenia were identified in three ways: (a) routine data: cohort members were linked to the register of the Mental Health Enquiry for England in which mental health service contacts between 1974 and 1986 were recorded; (b) cohort data: hospital and GP contacts (and the reasons for these contacts) were routinely reported at the intermittent resurveys of the cohort; (c) all cohort participants identified as possible cases of schizophrenia were given a detailed clinical interview (Present State examination) at age 36.

Milestones of motor development were reached later in cases than in non-cases, particularly walking. Cases also had more speech problems than had noncases. Low educational test scores at ages 8,11, and 15 years were a risk factor. A preference for solitary play at ages 4 and 6 years predicted schizophrenia. A health visitor's rating of the mother as having below average mothering skills and understanding of her child at age 4 years was a predictor of schizophrenia in that child. Jones concluded ‘differences between children destined to develop schizophrenia as adults and the general population were found across a range of developmental domains. As with some other adult illnesses, the origins of schizophrenia may be found in early life’.

Jones' findings were largely confirmed in a very similar historical cohort study in Finland (Isohanni et al. 2001); a 31 year follow-up of the 1966 North Finland birth cohort (n = 12,058). Onsets of schizophrenia were ascertained from a national hospital discharge register. The ages at learning to stand, walk and become potty-trained were each related to subsequent incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses. Earlier milestones reduced, and later milestones increased, the risk in a linear manner. These developmental effects were not seen for non-psychotic outcomes. The findings support hypotheses regarding psychosis as having a developmental dimension with precursors apparent in early life.

There are many conveniences to this approach for the contemporary investigator. ♦ The exposure data has already been collected for you. ♦ The follow-up period has already elapsed. ♦ The design maintains the essential feature of the cohort study, namely that information bias with respect to the assessment of the exposure should not be a problem. ♦ As with the Barker hypothesis example, historical cohort studies are particularly useful for investigating associations across the life course, when there is a long latency between hypothesized exposure and outcome.

Despite these important advantages, such retrospective studies are often limited by reliance on historical data that was collected routinely for other purposes; often these data will be inaccurate or incomplete. Also information about possible confounders, such as smoking or diet, may be inadequate.

Chapter.  7816 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry ; Public Health and Epidemiology ; Epidemiology

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