Visualizing disease associations: graphic analysis of frequency distributions as a function of age using moving average plots (MAP) with application to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease



Age-related variation in marker frequency can be a confounder in association studies, leading to both false-positive and false-negative findings and subsequently to inconsistent reproducibility. We have developed a simple method, based on a novel extension of moving average plots (MAP), which allows investigators to inspect the frequency data for hidden age-related variations. MAP uses the standard case-control association data and generates a birds-eye view of the frequency distributions across the age spectrum; a picture in which one can see if, how, and when the marker frequencies in cases differ from that in controls. The marker can be specified as an allele, genotype, haplotype, or environmental factor; and age can be age-at-onset, age when subject was last known to be unaffected, or duration of exposure. Signature patterns that emerge can help distinguish true disease associations from spurious associations due to age effects, age-varying associations from associations that are uniform across all ages, and associations with risk from associations with age-at-onset. Utility of MAP is illustrated by application to genetic and epidemiological association data for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. MAP is intended as a descriptive method, to complement standard statistical techniques. Although originally developed for age patterns, MAP is equally useful for visualizing any quantitative trait. Genet. Epidemiol. 34:92–99, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.