Epidemiological Study Designs: Traditional and Novel Approaches to Advance Life Course Health Development Research

This is one of 26 chapters published in the Handbook of Life Course Health Development.


Abstract: The central focus of life course epidemiology and life course approaches to health development is on the complex processes underlying the occurrence and accrual of risks at multiple levels and their impact on the developing individual. Reflecting the multilevel and integrated features of human health development that are at the centre of life course health-development (LCHD) principles, study designs seek better understanding of social, familial, and genetic contributions to the aetiology of health conditions, exploring the timing and interactions of different experiences and risks in relationship to the natural course of disorders in different populations and examining the time-specific and cumulative impacts of social and environmental factors. Many different study designs can advance a life course health-development framework. In this chapter we review common epidemiologic study designs including (i) cohort studies (general prospective cohort studies, perinatal/birth cohorts, twin studies, and high-risk cohort studies); (ii) case–control studies, including nested case–control studies within larger cohorts; (iii) cross-sectional studies; (iv) quasi-experimental designs; and (v) randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Although certain design strategies, namely, cohort studies, lend themselves more readily to the life course approach—examining the process of health development and its emphasis on emergent, person-context relations, and plasticity across the lifespan—we also describe other study designs that can be used to further our understanding of health and the development of different disorders and diseases from the life course perspective. The benefits and limitations of alternative design approaches are discussed using one study question as an example—investigating the relationship between traumatic experience and the development of a substance use disorder.



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