To Adjust or Not to Adjust: The Role of Different Covariates in Cardiovascular Observational Studies.
Etminan M., Brophy JM., Collins G., Nazemipour M., Mansournia MA.
Covariate adjustment is integral to the validity of observational studies assessing causal effects. It is common practice to adjust for as many variables as possible in observational studies in the hopes of reducing confounding by other variables. However, indiscriminate adjustment for variables using standard regression models may actually lead to biased estimates. In this paper, we differentiate between confounders, mediators, colliders, and effect modifiers. We will discuss that while confounders should be adjusted for in the analysis, one should be wary of adjusting for colliders. Mediators should not be adjusted for when examining the total effect of an exposure on an outcome. Automated statistical programs should not be used to decide which variables to include in causal models. Using a case scenario in cardiology, we will demonstrate how to identify confounders, colliders, mediators and effect modifiers and the implications of adjustment or non-adjustment for each of them.