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- How can we use data from twins to shed light on the causal pathways underlying the association between birthweight and later disease risk?
- Data from studies examining within-cohort and within-pair associations
- Generalisability of findings in cohorts of twins
There has been much interest in evidence that people with lower birthweight have higher risk of adult cardiovascular disease, but the causal pathways underlying such observations are uncertain. Study of twins offers an opportunity to shed light on the underlying causal pathways, in particular by investigating the role of ‘shared’ factors vs. factors affecting each individual fetus. This involves comparing results of within-cohort vs. within-pair analyses.
Twins share many factors during gestation but birthweight discordance (difference in birthweight within a twin pair) cannot be determined by these shared factors and must relate to factors affecting growth of each individual fetus. If associations seen in a cohort of twins remain in within-pair analyses, then factors specific to each individual must be involved in the underlying causal pathways. Conversely, if the relationships disappear or substantially diminish in within-pair analyses, then factors common to the pair must be involved. Comparison of findings in monozygotic vs. dizygotic twins may provide insights into the role of genetic factors, although issues related to chorionicity need to be taken into account.
We tabulate published data and conclude that differences in methodology and analyses preclude informative meta-analysis, and that analysis of pooled data would provide more useful information.