Stressful life events and leukocyte telomere attrition in adulthood: a prospective population-based cohort study

Psychol Med. 2015 Oct;45(14):2975-84. doi: 10.1017/S0033291715000914. Epub 2015 Jul 29.


Background: Telomere attrition might be one of the mechanisms through which psychosocial stress leads to somatic disease. To date it is unknown if exposure to adverse life events in adulthood is associated with telomere shortening prospectively. In the current study we investigated whether life events are associated with shortening of telomere length (TL).

Method: Participants were 1094 adults (mean age 53.1, range 33-79 years) from the PREVEND cohort. Data were collected at baseline (T1) and at two follow-up visits after 4 years (T2) and 6 years (T3). Life events were assessed with an adjusted version of the List of Threatening Events (LTE). TL was measured by monochrome multiplex quantitative PCR at T1, T2, and T3. A linear mixed model was used to assess the effect of recent life events on TL prospectively. Multivariable regression analyses were performed to assess whether the lifetime life events score or the score of life events experienced before the age of 12 predicted TL cross-sectionally. All final models were adjusted for age, sex, body mass index, presence of chronic diseases, frequency of sports, smoking status, and level of education.

Results: Recent life events significantly predicted telomere attrition prospectively (B = -0.031, p = 0.007). We were not able to demonstrate a significant cross-sectional relationship between the lifetime LTE score and TL. Nor did we find exposure to adverse life events before the age of 12 to be associated with TL in adulthood.

Conclusions: Exposure to recent adverse life events in adulthood is associated with telomere attrition prospectively.

Keywords: Adversity; life events; observational cohort study; prospective; stress; telomere.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / ultrastructure*
  • Life Change Events*
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Telomere / pathology*
  • Telomere Shortening / genetics*