Background: Mendelian Randomization (MR) studies exploiting single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) predictive of leukocyte telomere length (LTL) have suggested that shorter genetically determined telomere length (gTL) is associated with increased risks of degenerative diseases, including cardiovascular and Alzheimer's diseases, while longer gTL is associated with increased cancer risks. These varying directions of disease risk have long begged the question: when it comes to telomeres, is it better to be long or short? We propose to operationalize and answer this question by considering the relative impact of long gTL vs. short gTL on disease incidence and burden in a population.
Methods and findings: We used odds ratios (OR) of disease associated with gTL from a recently published MR meta-analysis to approximate the relative contributions of gTL to the incidence and burden of neoplastic and non-neoplastic disease in a European population. We obtained incidence data of the 9 cancers associated with long gTL and 4 non-neoplastic diseases associated with short gTL from the Institute of Health Metrics (IHME). Incidence rates of individual cancers from SEER, a database of United States cancer records, were used to weight the ORs in order to align with the available IHME data. These data were used to estimate the excess incidences due to long vs. short gTL, expressed as per 100,000 persons per standard deviation (SD) change in gTL. To estimate the population disease burden, we used the Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY) metric from the IHME, a measure of overall disease burden that accounts for both mortality and morbidity, and similarly calculated the excess DALY associated with long vs. short gTL.
Results: Our analysis shows that, despite the markedly larger ORs of neoplastic disease, the large incidence of degenerative diseases causes the excess incidence attributable to gTL to balance that of neoplastic diseases. Long gTL is associated with an excess incidence of 94.04 cases/100,000 persons/SD (45.49-168.84, 95%CI) from the 9 cancer, while short gTL is associated with an excess incidence of 121.49 cases/100,000 persons/SD (48.40-228.58, 95%CI) from the 4 non-neoplastic diseases. When considering disease burden using the DALY metric, long gTL is associated with an excess 1255.25 DALYs/100,000 persons/SD (662.71-2163.83, 95%CI) due to the 9 cancers, while short gTL is associated with an excess 1007.75 DALYs/100,000 persons/SD (411.63-1847.34, 95%CI) due to 4 non-neoplastic diseases.
Conclusions: Our results show that genetically determined long and short telomere length are associated with disease risk and burden of approximately equal magnitude. These results provide quantitative estimates of the relative impact of genetically-predicted short vs. long TL in a human population, and provide evidence in support of the cancer-aging paradox, wherein human telomere length is balanced by opposing evolutionary forces acting to minimize both neoplastic and non-neoplastic diseases. Importantly, our results indicate that odds ratios alone can be misleading in different clinical scenarios, and disease risk should be assessed from both an individual and population level in order to draw appropriate conclusions about the risk factor's role in human health.