Background: Attributable fractions (AF) assess the proportion of cases in a population attributable to certain risk factors but are infrequently reported and mostly calculated without considering potential confounders. While logistic regression for adjusted individual estimates of odds ratios (OR) is widely used, similar approaches for AFs are rarely applied.
Methods: Different methods for calculating adjusted AFs to risk factors of cardiovascular disease (CVD) were applied using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). We compared AFs from the unadjusted approach using Levin's formula, from Levin's formula using adjusted OR estimates, from logistic regression according to Bruzzi's approach, from logistic regression with sequential removal of risk factors ('sequential AF') and from logistic regression with all possible removal sequences and subsequent averaging ('average AF').
Results: AFs following the unadjusted and adjusted (using adjusted ORs) Levin's approach yielded clearly higher estimates with a total sum of more than 100% compared to adjusted approaches with sums < 100%. Since AFs from logistic regression were related to the removal sequence of risk factors, all possible sequences were considered and estimates were averaged. These average AFs yielded plausible estimates of the population impact of considered risk factors on CVD with a total sum of 90%. The average AFs for total and HDL cholesterol levels were 17%, for hypertension 16%, for smoking 11%, and for diabetes 5%.
Conclusion: Average AFs provide plausible estimates of population attributable risks and should therefore be reported at least to supplement unadjusted estimates. We provide functions/macros for commonly used statistical programs to encourage other researchers to calculate and report average AFs.