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To understand further the design of a case–control study, and why the odds ratio from a case–control study estimates the incidence rate ratio, consider first the occurrence of a particular disease within an underlying population that gives rise to the cases. This underlying cohort is sometimes called the source population. At the start of follow-up, all subjects are disease-free; P people are exposed and Q are not. After following the cohort for t years, A of the P exposed and B of the Q unexposed subjects develop disease (Table C–1).

Table C–1. Disease Occurrence in a Cohort by Exposure Status.

To calculate incidence rates for this cohort, as discussed in Chapter 2: Epidemiologic Measures, first calculate the person-years of observation (py), which is given by


This equation simplifies if few people develop disease during the follow-up period and the population undergoes no major demographic shifts, a situation termed the “steady state.” If the steady state holds, the size of the source population is nearly constant and the equation above simplifies to


Application of the latter equation to the hypothetical cohort yields P × t and Q × t person-years of observation for the exposed and unexposed subjects, respectively (Table C–1). Thus, the incidence rate in the exposed subjects is A/(P × t) and in the unexposed subjects is B/(Q × t), and the incidence rate ratio (IRR) is


Now, turning to the case–control study design, cases arise from a clearly defined source population and the investigator then chooses controls from this same population. Thus, to conduct a case–control study using the source population described in Table C–1, subjects with disease (cases) and subjects without disease (controls) are sampled and their respective exposure histories are then determined. Excluded from both the case and control groups are potential subjects known to have had disease when the study began—only newly diagnosed or “incident” cases are included. In practice, it is possible to contact newly diagnosed cases and a sample from the general population, ask each subject about prior disease, and exclude those who were diagnosed prior to the study period. The data can be summarized as in Table C–2.

Table C–2. Data from a Hypothetical Case-Control Study of a Disease and a Dichotomous Exposure.

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