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Int J Epidemiol. 2015 Aug;44(4):1408-21. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyu192. Epub 2014 Dec 12.

Understanding variation in disease risk: the elusive concept of frailty.

Author information

1
Oslo Centre for Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Department of Biostatistics, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway and Cancer Registry of Norway, Institute of Population-Based Cancer Research, Oslo, Norway o.o.aalen@medisin.uio.no.
2
Oslo Centre for Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Department of Biostatistics, Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway and.
3
Cancer Registry of Norway, Institute of Population-Based Cancer Research, Oslo, Norway.

Abstract

The concept of frailty plays a major role in the statistical field of survival analysis. Frailty variation refers to differences in risk between individuals which go beyond known or measured risk factors. In other words, frailty variation is unobserved heterogeneity. Although understanding frailty is of interest in its own right, the literature on survival analysis has demonstrated that existence of frailty variation can lead to surprising artefacts in statistical estimation that are important to examine. We present literature that demonstrates the presence and significance of frailty variation between individuals. We discuss the practical content of frailty variation, and show the link between frailty and biological concepts like (epi)genetics and heterogeneity in disease risk. There are numerous suggestions in the literature that a good deal of this variation may be due to randomness, in addition to genetic and/or environmental factors. Heterogeneity often manifests itself as clustering of cases in families more than would be expected by chance. We emphasize that apparently moderate familial relative risks can only be explained by strong underlying variation in disease risk between families and individuals. Finally, we highlight the potential impact of frailty variation in the interpretation of standard epidemiological measures such as hazard and incidence rates.

KEYWORDS:

Frailty; epigenetics; heterogeneity; random variation

PMID:
25501685
PMCID:
PMC4588855
DOI:
10.1093/ije/dyu192
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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