Early life infection, but not breastfeeding, predicts adult blood telomere lengths in the Philippines

Am J Hum Biol. 2017 Jul 8;29(4):10.1002/ajhb.22962. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.22962. Epub 2017 Jan 25.


Objectives: Telomeres are repetitive DNA at chromosomes ends that shorten with age due to cellular replication and oxidative stress. As telomeres shorten, this can eventually place limits on cell replication and contribute to senescence. Infections are common during early development and activate cellular immune responses that involve clonal expansion and oxidative stress. As such, a high infectious disease burden might shorten blood telomere length (BTL) and accelerate the pace of immune senescence.

Methods: To test this, BTL measured in young adults (21.7 ± 0.3 years old) from the Philippines (N = 1,759) were linked to prospectively collected early life data on infectious burden.

Results: As predicted, increased early life diarrheal prevalence was associated with shorter adult BTL. The association was most marked for infections experienced from 6 to 12 months, which corresponds with weaning and maximal diarrheal burden. A standard deviation increase in infections at 6-12 m predicts a 45 bp decrease in BTL, equivalent to 3.3 years of adult telomeric aging in this population. Contrary to expectations, breastfeeding duration was not associated with BTL, nor did effects vary by sex.

Conclusions: These findings show that infancy diarrheal disease predicts a marker of cellular aging in adult immune cells. These findings suggest that early life infectious burden may influence late life health, or alternatively, that short TL in early life increases infectious disease susceptibility.

MeSH terms

  • Blood / metabolism*
  • Breast Feeding* / statistics & numerical data
  • Diarrhea / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morbidity
  • Philippines / epidemiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Telomere Homeostasis*
  • Telomere Shortening*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult