The trajectory of frailty in older adults is important to public health; therefore, markers that may help predict this and other important outcomes could be beneficial. Epigenetic clocks have been developed and are associated with various health-related outcomes and sociodemographic factors, but associations with frailty are poorly described. Further, it is uncertain whether newer generations of epigenetic clocks, trained on variables other than chronological age, would be more strongly associated with frailty than earlier developed clocks. Using data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), we tested the hypothesis that clocks trained on phenotypic markers of health or mortality (i.e., Dunedin PoAm, GrimAge, PhenoAge and Zhang in Nat Commun 8:14617, 2017) would best predict changes in a 76-item frailty index (FI) over a 3-year interval, as compared to clocks trained on chronological age (i.e., Hannum in Mol Cell 49:359–367, 2013, Horvath in Genome Biol 14:R115, 2013, Lin in Aging 8:394–401, 2016, and Yang Genome Biol 17:205, 2016).
We show that in 1446 participants, phenotype/mortality-trained clocks outperformed age-trained clocks with regard to the association with baseline frailty (mean = 0.141, SD = 0.075), the greatest of which is GrimAge, where a 1-SD increase in ΔGrimAge (i.e., the difference from chronological age) was associated with a 0.020 increase in frailty (95% CI 0.016, 0.024), or ~ 27% relative to the SD in frailty. Only GrimAge and Hannum (Mol Cell 49:359–367, 2013) were significantly associated with change in frailty over time, where a 1-SD increase in ΔGrimAge and ΔHannum 2013 was associated with a 0.0030 (95% CI 0.0007, 0.0050) and 0.0028 (95% CI 0.0007, 0.0050) increase over 3 years, respectively, or ~ 7% relative to the SD in frailty change.
Both prevalence and change in frailty are associated with increased epigenetic age. However, not all clocks are equally sensitive to these outcomes and depend on their underlying relationship with chronological age, healthspan and lifespan. Certain clocks were significantly associated with relatively short-term changes in frailty, thereby supporting their utility in initiatives and interventions to promote healthy aging.