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Eur J Epidemiol. 2010 Jul;25(7):459-66. doi: 10.1007/s10654-010-9475-z. Epub 2010 Jun 15.

Experience with multiple control groups in a large population-based case-control study on genetic and environmental risk factors.

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  • 1Department of Clinical Epidemiology, C7-P, Leiden University Medical Center, P.O. Box 9600, 2300 RC, Leiden, The Netherlands.


We discuss the analytic and practical considerations in a large case-control study that had two control groups; the first control group consisting of partners of patients and the second obtained by random digit dialling (RDD). As an example of the evaluation of a general lifestyle factor, we present body mass index (BMI). Both control groups had lower BMIs than the patients. The distribution in the partner controls was closer to that of the patients, likely due to similar lifestyles. A statistical approach was used to pool the results of both analyses, wherein partners were analyzed with a matched analysis, while RDDs were analyzed without matching. Even with a matched analysis, the odds ratio with partner controls remained closer to unity than with RDD controls, which is probably due to unmeasured confounders in the comparison with the random controls as well as intermediary factors. However, when studying injuries as a risk factor, the odds ratio remained higher with partner control subjects than with RRD control subjects, even after taking the matching into account. Finally we used factor V Leiden as an example of a genetic risk factor. The frequencies of factor V Leiden were identical in both control groups, indicating that for the analyses of this genetic risk factor the two control groups could be combined in a single unmatched analysis. In conclusion, the effect measures with the two control groups were in the same direction, and of the same order of magnitude. Moreover, it was not always the same control group that produced the higher or lower estimates, and a matched analysis did not remedy the differences. Our experience with the intricacies of dealing with two control groups may be useful to others when thinking about an optimal research design or the best statistical approach.

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