Background: Recent meta-analyses have suggested that short telomere length was associated with increased risk of cancer. We therefore tested the hypotheses that short telomere length was associated with increased risk of cancer and with increased risk of early death after cancer.
Methods: We measured leukocyte telomere length in a prospective study of 47 102 Danish general population participants from the Copenhagen City Heart Study and the Copenhagen General Population Study. Participants were followed for up to 20 years for cancer diagnosis and death. Follow-up was 100% complete. All statistical tests were two-sided.
Results: Telomere length decreased linearly with increasing age (P <.001). During follow-up, we observed 3142 first cancers and, among these individuals, 1730 deaths. Decreasing quartiles of telomere length were associated with decreasing survival after cancer (log-rank P <.001). Multivariable-adjusted hazard ratios of early death were 1.31 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.14 to 1.52) in individuals in the quartile and 1.43 (95% CI = 1.13 to 1.80) in individuals in the decile with the shortest telomeres vs the longest. Unadjusted hazard ratios of cancer risk were 1.74 (95% CI = 1.58 to 1.93) and 2.00 (95% CI = 1.70 to 2.35) in individuals in the quartile and decile with the shortest vs longest telomeres; however, multivariable adjustment changed these hazard ratios to 0.98 (95% CI = 0.88 to 1.08) and 0.95 (95% CI = 0.80 to 1.11), mainly because of age adjustment.
Conclusions: Short telomere length is associated with reduced survival after cancer but not with cancer risk. The latter contrasts with findings from recent meta-analyses.