Phenotypic and genetic markers of psychopathology in a population-based sample of older adults

Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Apr 24;11(1):239. doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01354-2.


Although psychiatric phenotypes are hypothesized to organize into a two-factor internalizing-externalizing structure, few studies have evaluated the structure of psychopathology in older adults, nor explored whether genome-wide polygenic scores (PGSs) are associated with psychopathology in a domain-specific manner. We used data from 6003 individuals of European ancestry from the Health and Retirement Study, a large population-based sample of older adults in the United States. Confirmatory factor analyses were applied to validated measures of psychopathology and PGSs were derived from well-powered genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Genomic SEM was implemented to construct latent PGSs for internalizing, externalizing, and general psychopathology. Phenotypically, the data were best characterized by a single general factor of psychopathology, a factor structure that was replicated across genders and age groups. Although externalizing PGSs (cannabis use, antisocial behavior, alcohol dependence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) were not associated with any phenotypes, PGSs for major depressive disorder, neuroticism, and anxiety disorders were associated with both internalizing and externalizing phenotypes. Moreover, the variance explained in the general factor of psychopathology increased by twofold (from 1% to 2%) using the latent internalizing or latent one-factor PGSs, derived using weights from Genomic Structural Equation Modeling (SEM), compared with any of the individual PGSs. Collectively, results suggest that genetic risk factors for and phenotypic markers of psychiatric disorders are transdiagnostic in older adults of European ancestry. Alternative explanations are discussed, including methodological limitations of GWAS and phenotypic measurement of psychiatric outcome in large-scale population-based studies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Anxiety Disorders / genetics
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / epidemiology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / genetics
  • Female
  • Genetic Markers
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders* / genetics
  • Psychopathology


  • Genetic Markers