An association between exposure to a risk factor and age-at-onset of disease may reflect an effect on the rate of disease occurrence or an acceleration of the disease process. The difference in age-at-onset arising from case-only studies, however, may also reflect secular trends in the prevalence of exposure to the risk factor. Comparisons of age-at-onset associated with risk factors are commonly performed in case series enrolled for genetic linkage analysis of late onset diseases. We describe how the results of age-at-onset studies of environmental risk factors reflect the underlying structure of the source population, rather than an association with age-at-onset, by contrasting the effects of coffee drinking and cigarette smoking on Parkinson disease age-at-onset with the effects on age-at-enrollment in a population based study sample. Despite earlier evidence to suggest a protective association of coffee drinking and cigarette smoking with Parkinson disease risk, the age-at-onset results are comparable to the patterns observed in the population sample, and thus a causal inference from the age-at-onset effect may not be justified. Protective effects of multivitamin use on PD age-at-onset are also shown to be subject to a bias from the relationship between age and multivitamin initiation. Case-only studies of age-at-onset must be performed with an appreciation for the association between risk factors and age and ageing in the source population.
Wilk, J. B., & Lash, T. L. (2007). Risk factor studies of age-at-onset in a sample ascertained for Parkinson disease affected sibling pairs: A cautionary tale. Emerging Themes in Epidemiology. https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-7622-4-1