The Influence of Alcohol Consumption, Cigarette Smoking, and Physical Activity on Leukocyte Telomere Length

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2016 Feb;25(2):374-80. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-1364. Epub 2015 Dec 9.


Background: Telomeres protect from DNA degradation and maintain chromosomal stability. Short telomeres have been associated with an increased risk of cancer at several sites. However, there is limited knowledge about the lifestyle determinants of telomere length. We aimed to determine the effect of three factors, known to be important in cancer etiology, on relative leukocyte telomere length (rLTL): alcohol consumption, smoking, and physical activity.

Methods: This cross-sectional study included 477 healthy volunteers ages 20 to 50 years who completed a questionnaire and provided a fasting blood sample. Multiplex quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) was used to measure rLTL. Regression coefficients were calculated using multiple linear regression while controlling for important covariates.

Results: There was no association between alcohol consumption and rLTL. Daily smokers and those in the middle and lower tertile of pack-years smoking had shorter rLTL than never daily smokers (P = 0.02). Data were suggestive of a linear trend with total physical activity (P = 0.06). Compared with the lowest quartile, the highest quartile of vigorous physical activity was associated with longer rLTL. A significant linear trend of increasing rLTL with increasing vigorous physical activity was observed (P = 0.02).

Conclusions: Cigarette smoking and vigorous physical activity have an impact on telomere length. Smoking was related to shorter telomere length while vigorous physical activity was related to longer telomeres.

Impact: The findings from this study suggest that lifestyle may play an important role in telomere dynamics and also suggest that engaging in healthy behaviors may mitigate the effect of harmful behaviors on telomere length.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes / cytology
  • Leukocytes / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Telomere Shortening
  • Young Adult