Using random forest to identify longitudinal predictors of health in a 30-year cohort study

Bette Loef*, Albert Wong, Nicole A.H. Janssen, Maciek Strak, Jurriaan Hoekstra, H.S.J. Picavet, H.C.H. Boshuizen, W.M.M. Verschuren, Gerrie C.M. Herber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Due to the wealth of exposome data from longitudinal cohort studies that is currently available, the need for methods to adequately analyze these data is growing. We propose an approach in which machine learning is used to identify longitudinal exposome-related predictors of health, and illustrate its potential through an application. Our application involves studying the relation between exposome and self-perceived health based on the 30-year running Doetinchem Cohort Study. Random Forest (RF) was used to identify the strongest predictors due to its favorable prediction performance in prior research. The relation between predictors and outcome was visualized with partial dependence and accumulated local effects plots. To facilitate interpretation, exposures were summarized by expressing them as the average exposure and average trend over time. The RF model’s ability to discriminate poor from good self-perceived health was acceptable (Area-Under-the-Curve = 0.707). Nine exposures from different exposome-related domains were largely responsible for the model’s performance, while 87 exposures seemed to contribute little to the performance. Our approach demonstrates that ML can be interpreted more than widely believed, and can be applied to identify important longitudinal predictors of health over the life course in studies with repeated measures of exposure. The approach is context-independent and broadly applicable.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10372
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2022


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