Genome-Wide Estimates of Heritability for Social Demographic Outcomes

Biodemography Soc Biol. 2016;62(1):1-18. doi: 10.1080/19485565.2015.1068106.


An increasing number of studies that are widely used in the demographic research community have collected genome-wide data from their respondents. It is therefore important that demographers have a proper understanding of some of the methodological tools needed to analyze such data. This article details the underlying methodology behind one of the most common techniques for analyzing genome-wide data, genome-wide complex trait analysis (GCTA). GCTA models provide heritability estimates for health, health behaviors, or indicators of attainment using data from unrelated persons. Our goal was to describe this model, highlight the utility of the model for biodemographic research, and demonstrate the performance of this approach under modifications to the underlying assumptions. The first set of modifications involved changing the nature of the genetic data used to compute genetic similarities between individuals (the genetic relationship matrix). We then explored the sensitivity of the model to heteroscedastic errors. In general, GCTA estimates are found to be robust to the modifications proposed here, but we also highlight potential limitations of GCTA estimates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Datasets as Topic
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods*
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable*