Phenotype of frailty: characterization in the women’s health and aging studies


Background: “Frailty” is an adverse, primarily gerontologic, health condition regarded as frequent with aging and having severe consequences. Although clinicians claim that the extremes of frailty can be easily recognized, a standardized definition of frailty has proved elusive until recently. This article evaluates the cross-validity, criterion validity, and internal validity in the Women’s Health and Aging Studies (WHAS) of a discrete measure of frailty recently validated in the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS).

Methods: The frailty measure developed in CHS was delineated in the WHAS data sets. Using latent class analysis, we evaluated whether criteria composing the measure aggregate into a syndrome. We verified the criterion validity of the measure by testing whether participants defined as frail were more likely than others to develop adverse geriatric outcomes or to die.

Results: The distributions of frailty in the WHAS and CHS were comparable. In latent class analyses, the measures demonstrated strong internal validity vis à vis stated theory characterizing frailty as a medical syndrome. In proportional hazards models, frail women had a higher risk of developing activities of daily living (ADL) and/or instrumental ADL disability, institutionalization, and death, independently of multiple potentially confounding factors.

Conclusions: The findings of this study are consistent with the widely held theory that conceptualizes frailty as a syndrome. The frailty definition developed in the CHS is applicable across diverse population samples and identifies a profile of high risk of multiple adverse outcomes.

Frailty in older adults: evidence for a phenotype

Background: Frailty is considered highly prevalent in old age and to confer high risk for falls, disability, hospitalization, and mortality. Frailty has been considered synonymous with disability, comorbidity, and other characteristics, but it is recognized that it may have a biologic basis and be a distinct clinical syndrome. A standardized definition has not yet been established.

Methods: To develop and operationalize a phenotype of frailty in older adults and assess concurrent and predictive validity, the study used data from the Cardiovascular Health Study. Participants were 5,317 men and women 65 years and older (4,735 from an original cohort recruited in 1989-90 and 582 from an African American cohort recruited in 1992-93). Both cohorts received almost identical baseline evaluations and 7 and 4 years of follow-up, respectively, with annual examinations and surveillance for outcomes including incident disease, hospitalization, falls, disability, and mortality.

Results: Frailty was defined as a clinical syndrome in which three or more of the following criteria were present: unintentional weight loss (10 lbs in past year), self-reported exhaustion, weakness (grip strength), slow walking speed, and low physical activity. The overall prevalence of frailty in this community-dwelling population was 6.9%; it increased with age and was greater in women than men. Four-year incidence was 7.2%. Frailty was associated with being African American, having lower education and income, poorer health, and having higher rates of comorbid chronic diseases and disability. There was overlap, but not concordance, in the cooccurrence of frailty, comorbidity, and disability. This frailty phenotype was independently predictive (over 3 years) of incident falls, worsening mobility or ADL disability, hospitalization, and death, with hazard ratios ranging from 1.82 to 4.46, unadjusted, and 1.29-2.24, adjusted for a number of health, disease, and social characteristics predictive of 5-year mortality. Intermediate frailty status, as indicated by the presence of one or two criteria, showed intermediate risk of these outcomes as well as increased risk of becoming frail over 3-4 years of follow-up (odds ratios for incident frailty = 4.51 unadjusted and 2.63 adjusted for covariates, compared to those with no frailty criteria at baseline).

Conclusions: This study provides a potential standardized definition for frailty in community-dwelling older adults and offers concurrent and predictive validity for the definition. It also finds that there is an intermediate stage identifying those at high risk of frailty. Finally, it provides evidence that frailty is not synonymous with either comorbidity or disability, but comorbidity is an etiologic risk factor for, and disability is an outcome of, frailty. This provides a potential basis for clinical assessment for those who are frail or at risk, and for future research to develop interventions for frailty based on a standardized ascertainment of frailty.