Background: Statistical methods to study the joint effects of environmental factors are of great importance to understand the impact of correlated exposures that may act synergistically or antagonistically on health outcomes. This study proposes a family of statistical models under a unified partial-linear single-index (PLSI) modeling framework, to assess the joint effects of environmental factors for continuous, categorical, time-to-event, and longitudinal outcomes. All PLSI models consist of a linear combination of exposure factors into a single index for practical interpretability of relative direction and importance, and a nonparametric link function for modeling flexibility.
Methods: We presented PLSI linear regression and PLSI quantile regression for continuous outcome, PLSI generalized linear regression for categorical outcome, PLSI proportional hazards model for time-to-event outcome, and PLSI mixed-effects model for longitudinal outcome. These models were demonstrated using a dataset of 800 subjects from NHANES 2003-2004 survey including 8 environmental factors. Serum triglyceride concentration was analyzed as a continuous outcome and then dichotomized as a binary outcome. Simulations were conducted to demonstrate the PLSI proportional hazards model and PLSI mixed-effects model. The performance of PLSI models was compared with their counterpart parametric models.
Results: PLSI linear, quantile, and logistic regressions showed similar results that the 8 environmental factors had both positive and negative associations with triglycerides, with a-Tocopherol having the most positive and trans-b-carotene the most negative association. For the time-to-event and longitudinal settings, simulations showed that PLSI models could correctly identify directions and relative importance for the 8 environmental factors. Compared with parametric models, PLSI models got similar results when the link function was close to linear, but clearly outperformed in simulations with nonlinear effects.
Conclusions: We presented a unified family of PLSI models to assess the joint effects of exposures on four commonly-used types of outcomes in environmental research, and demonstrated their modeling flexibility and effectiveness, especially for studying environmental factors with mixed directional effects and/or nonlinear effects. Our study has expanded the analytical toolbox for investigating the complex effects of environmental factors. A practical contribution also included a coherent algorithm for all proposed PLSI models with R codes available.