Telomeres are the repetitive DNA sequences and specialized proteins that form the distinctive structure that caps the ends of linear chromosomes. Telomeres allow cells to distinguish the chromosome ends from double strand DNA breaks. The telomeric structure prevents the degradation or fusion of chromosome ends, and thus is essential for maintaining the integrity and stability of eukaryotic genomes. In addition, and perhaps less widely appreciated, telomeres may also indirectly influence gene expression. The length, structure and organization of telomeres are regulated by a host of telomere-associated proteins, and can be influenced by basic cellular processes such as cell proliferation, differentiation, and DNA damage. In mammalian cells, telomere length and/or telomere structure have been linked to both cancer and aging. Here, we briefly review what is known about mammalian telomeres and the proteins that associate with them, and discuss the cellular and organismal consequences of telomere dysfunction and the evidence that cells with dysfunctional telomeres can contribute to cancer and aging phenotypes.