Telomere length in epidemiology: a biomarker of aging, age-related disease, both, or neither?

Epidemiol Rev. 2013;35(1):112-31. doi: 10.1093/epirev/mxs008. Epub 2013 Jan 9.


Telomeres are nucleoprotein caps flanking DNA. They are shortened by cell division and oxidative stress and are lengthened by the enzyme telomerase and DNA exchange during mitosis. Short telomeres induce cellular senescence. As an indicator of oxidative stress and senescence (2 processes thought to be fundamental to aging), telomere length is hypothesized to be a biomarker of aging. This hypothesis has been tested for more than a decade with epidemiologic study methods. In cross-sectional studies, researchers have investigated whether leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is associated with demographic, behavioral, and health variables. In prospective studies, baseline LTL has been used to predict mortality and occasionally other adverse health outcomes. Conflicting data have generated heated debate about the value of LTL as a biomarker of overall aging. In this review, we address the epidemiologic data on LTL and demonstrate that shorter LTL is associated with older age, male gender, Caucasian race, and possibly atherosclerosis; associations with other markers of health are equivocal. We discuss the reasons for discrepancy across studies, including a detailed review of methods for measuring telomere length as they apply to epidemiology. Finally, we conclude with questions about LTL as a biomarker of aging and how epidemiology can be used to answer these questions.

Keywords: aging; biomarker; oxidative stress; senescence; telomere.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis / epidemiology*
  • Atherosclerosis / genetics
  • Biomarkers
  • Genetic Markers
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Sex Factors
  • Telomere / metabolism*
  • White People / genetics


  • Biomarkers
  • Genetic Markers