Telomere length in psychiatric disorders: Is it more than an ageing marker?

World J Biol Psychiatry. 2018;19(sup2):S2-S20. doi: 10.1080/15622975.2016.1273550. Epub 2017 Jan 25.


Objectives: Psychiatric and substance-use disorders have been associated with premature biological ageing. Telomere length (TL), considered an ageing marker, has been analysed in psychiatric disorders, and to a lesser extent in substance-use disorders, with recent findings suggesting TL may be related to disease pathology.

Methods: We conducted a critical and non-systematic literature search of TL studies published up to June 2016 in psychiatric and substance-use disorders, focussing on studies describing mechanisms, including studies linking telomere biology with genetic factors, stress and mitochondrial alterations (104 studies selected).

Results: Patients with major depressive disorder and anxiety appear to have shorter leukocyte telomeres compared to controls. Inconclusive results are found for other psychiatric disorders and for substance-use disorders. This may be due in part to differences in medication treatment and response, as studies suggest that some psychotropic medications may modulate TL. Importantly, some studies establish a relationship between telomere machinery, stress and mitochondria function in psychiatric and substance-use disorders.

Conclusions: While further longitudinal studies considering telomere genetics are needed to clarify the cause-effect link between telomeres and mitochondria function in psychiatric and substance-use disorders, the recent findings linking these biological processes suggest that telomeres may be more than ageing markers.

Keywords: Telomere length; ageing markers; psychiatric disorders; substance-use disorders; telomerase activity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / genetics*
  • Biomarkers
  • Humans
  • Leukocytes
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*
  • Mitochondria*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / genetics
  • Telomere / ultrastructure*
  • Telomere Shortening / genetics*


  • Biomarkers