The telomerase activity and length of telomeres of peripheral blood mononuclear cells obtained from 124 healthy individuals aged 4-95 years was measured. Telomerase activity level was semiquantitatively assessed by a fluorescent-telomeric repeat amplification protocol (fluorescent-TRAP) using an internal telomerase assay standard, fluorescent primers and an automated laser fluorescent DNA sequencer. Telomeric length, measured by assay of terminal restriction fragments (TRFs), was determined in HinfI-digested DNA by Southern blot analysis using a (TTAGGG)4 probe. TRF length was determined in 80 individuals and age-related progressive reduction of size was observed. TRF length in peripheral blood mononuclear cells obtained from normal individuals (aged 4-39 years) decreased by approximately 84 bp per year, while in individuals aged > or = 40 years it decreased by 41 bp per year. In contrast, telomerase activity showed an apparent biphasic pattern with aging. Individuals aged 4-39 years showed a progressive decrease in telomerase activity, whereas 65% of those aged > or = 40 years showed relatively stable but very low telomerase activity, and the remaining individuals aged > or = 40 years had no detectable telomerase activity. These data obtained from normal individuals might in the future be of value to help risk stratify and manage the care of patients with leukemia.