Epidemiological studies have principally relied on measurements of telomere length (TL) in leucocytes, which reflects TL in other somatic cells. Leucocyte TL (LTL) displays vast variation across individuals-a phenomenon already observed in newborns. It is highly heritable, longer in females than males and in individuals of African ancestry than European ancestry. LTL is also longer in offspring conceived by older men. The traditional view regards LTL as a passive biomarker of human ageing. However, new evidence suggests that a dynamic interplay between selective evolutionary forces and TL might result in trade-offs for specific health outcomes. From a biological perspective, an active role of TL in ageing-related human diseases could occur because short telomeres increase the risk of a category of diseases related to restricted cell proliferation and tissue degeneration, including cardiovascular disease, whereas long telomeres increase the risk of another category of diseases related to increased proliferative growth, including major cancers. To understand the role of telomere biology in ageing-related diseases, it is essential to expand telomere research to newborns and children and seek further insight into the underlying causes of the variation in TL due to ancestry and geographical location.This article is part of the theme issue 'Understanding diversity in telomere dynamics'.
Keywords: ageing; cancer; cardiovascular disease; evolution; genetics; telomeres.
© 2018 The Authors.