Telomere shortening unrelated to smoking, body weight, physical activity, and alcohol intake: 4,576 general population individuals with repeat measurements 10 years apart

PLoS Genet. 2014 Mar 13;10(3):e1004191. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004191. eCollection 2014 Mar.


Cross-sectional studies have associated short telomere length with smoking, body weight, physical activity, and possibly alcohol intake; however, whether these associations are due to confounding is unknown. We tested these hypotheses in 4,576 individuals from the general population cross-sectionally, and with repeat measurement of relative telomere length 10 years apart. We also tested whether change in telomere length is associated with mortality and morbidity in the general population. Relative telomere length was measured with quantitative polymerase chain reaction. Cross-sectionally at the first examination, short telomere length was associated with increased age (P for trend across quartiles = 3 × 10(-77)), current smoking (P = 8 × 10(-3)), increased body mass index (P = 7 × 10(-14)), physical inactivity (P = 4 × 10(-17)), but not with increased alcohol intake (P = 0.10). At the second examination 10 years later, 56% of participants had lost and 44% gained telomere length with a mean loss of 193 basepairs. Change in leukocyte telomere length during 10 years was associated inversely with baseline telomere length (P<1 × 10(-300)) and age at baseline (P = 1 × 10(-27)), but not with baseline or 10-year inter-observational tobacco consumption, body weight, physical activity, or alcohol intake. Prospectively during a further 10 years follow-up after the second examination, quartiles of telomere length change did not associate with risk of all-cause mortality, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, ischemic cerebrovascular disease, or ischemic heart disease. In conclusion, smoking, increased body weight, and physical inactivity were associated with short telomere length cross-sectionally, but not with telomere length change during 10 years observation, and alcohol intake was associated with neither. Also, change in telomere length did not associate prospectively with mortality or morbidity in the general population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics*
  • Body Mass Index
  • Body Weight / genetics*
  • Female
  • Genetics, Population
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / cytology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Activity / genetics*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / genetics*
  • Telomere / genetics
  • Telomere Shortening / genetics*

Grants and funding

This study was supported by the Danish Heart Foundation ( and Chief Physician Johan Boserup and Lise Boserup's Fund. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.