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Keywords:

  • aging;
  • environment;
  • genetics;
  • telomeres

Summary

During aging, chromosome ends, or telomeres, gradually erode or shorten with each somatic cell division. Loss of telomere length homeostasis has been linked to age-related disease. Remarkably, specific environmental assaults, both physical and psychological, have been shown to correlate with shortened telomeres. However, the extent that genetic and/or environmental factors may influence telomere length during later stages of lifespan is not known. Telomere length was measured in 686 male US World War II and Korean War veteran monozygotic (MZ) and dizygotic (DZ) twins (including 181 MZ and 125 DZ complete pairs) with a mean age of 77.5 years (range 73–85 years). During the entire process of telomere length measurement, participant age and twin status were completely blinded. White blood cell mean telomere length shortened in this elderly population by 71 base pairs per year (P < 0.0001). We observed no evidence of heritable effects in this elderly population on telomere length maintenance, but rather find that telomere length was largely associated with shared environmental factors (P < 0.0001). Additionally, we found that individuals with hypertension and cardiovascular disease had significantly shorter telomeres (P = 0.0025 and 0.002, respectively). Our results emphasize that shared environmental factors can have a primary impact on telomere length maintenance in elderly humans.