Background: The consistent findings of a negative correlation between telomere length and replicative potential of cultured cells, as well as a decreasing telomere length in a number of different tissues in humans with age, have led to the suggestion that telomeres play a role in cellular aging in vivo and ultimately even in organismal aging. Furthermore, one small longitudinal study of elderly individuals has suggested that longer telomeres are associated with better survival.
Methods: Telomere length was measured as mean terminal restriction fragment length on blood cells from 812 persons, age 73 to 101 years, who participated in population-based surveys in 1997-1998. Among the participants were 652 twins. The participants were followed up through the Danish Civil Registration system until January 2005, at which time 412 (51%) were dead.
Results: Univariate Cox regression analyses revealed that longer telomeres were associated with better survival (hazard ratios = 0.89 [95% confidence interval = 0.76-1.04] per 1 kb in males and 0.79 [0.72-0.88] per 1 kb in females, respectively). However, including age in the analyses changed the estimates to 0.97 (0.83-1.14) and 0.93 (0.85-1.03), respectively. Intrapair comparison showed that among 175 twin pairs in which at least one died during follow up, it was the twin with the shorter telomere length who died first in 97 (55%) of the pairs (95% confidence interval = 48-63%). We could not confirm the recently reported negative correlation between telomere length and obesity or between telomere length and smoking.
Conclusion: This longitudinal study of the elderly and oldest old does not support the hypothesis that telomere length is a predictor for remaining lifespan once age is controlled for.