A Causal Mediation Model for Longitudinal Mediators and Survival Outcomes with an Application to Animal Behavior


In animal behavior studies, a common goal is to investigate the causal pathways between an exposure and outcome, and a mediator that lies in between. Causal mediation analysis provides a principled approach for such studies. Although many applications involve longitudinal data, the existing causal mediation models are not directly applicable to settings where the mediators are measured on irregular time grids. In this paper, we propose a causal mediation model that accommodates longitudinal mediators on arbitrary time grids and survival outcomes simultaneously. We take a functional data analysis perspective and view longitudinal mediators as realizations of underlying smooth stochastic processes. We define causal estimands of direct and indirect effects accordingly and provide corresponding identification assumptions. We employ a functional principal component analysis approach to estimate the mediator process and propose a Cox hazard model for the survival outcome that flexibly adjusts the mediator process. We then derive a g-computation formula to express the causal estimands using the model coefficients. The proposed method is applied to a longitudinal data set from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project to investigate the causal relationships between early adversity, adult physiological stress responses, and survival among wild female baboons. We find that adversity experienced in early life has a significant direct effect on females’ life expectancy and survival probability, but find little evidence that these effects were mediated by markers of the stress response in adulthood. We further developed a sensitivity analysis method to assess the impact of potential violation to the key assumption of sequential ignorability. Supplementary materials accompanying this paper appear on-line.

Journal of Agricultural, Biological and Environmental Statistics