Maternal protein undernutrition can influence the growth and longevity of male offspring in the rat. We tested the hypothesis that these differences in longevity were associated with changes in the rate of telomere shortening. We found age-related shortening of telomeres in the liver and kidney but not in the brain of male rats. Growth retardation in postnatal life was associated with significantly longer kidney telomeres and an increased longevity. Conversely, growth retardation during the foetal life followed by postnatal catch-up growth was associated with a shorter life span and shorter kidney telomeres. These findings may provide a mechanistic basis for epidemiological studies linking early growth retardation to adult degenerative diseases.