The shortening of telomeres may result in chromosome instability and thus promote tumorigenesis. Previous studies have demonstrated clear involvement of telomere shortening in the carcinogenesis of several malignancies. However, the association between constitutive telomere shortening and gastric cancer development has yet to be established. Therefore, in the present study, we measured average telomere length using quantitative real-time PCR in peripheral blood lymphocytes from a gastric cancer (GC) case-control study consisting of 396 cases and 378 controls. The results showed that GC patients had significantly shorter average telomere length than matched controls (mean +/- SD 0.89 +/- 0.19 vs 1.06 +/- 0.25, P < 0.001). We further categorized telomere length using the 50% value in the controls as a cut-off point and assessed the association between telomere length and GC risk using multivariate logistic regression analysis. We found that short telomere length was associated with a significantly increased GC risk (adjusted odds ratio = 2.14, 95% confidence interval = 1.52-2.93). Quartile stratification revealed a dose-response relationship between telomere shortening and GC risk (P for trend < 0.001). Stratified analysis showed that sex, age, and alcohol drinking, but not smoking and Helicobacter pylori infection, seem to have a modulating effect on the average telomere length in both cases and controls. We also found that telomere shortening and smoking had a significant joint effect on GC risk. Collectively, our findings provide the first evidence linking the short telomere length in peripheral blood lymphocytes to elevated GC risk, which warrants further investigation in other populations.