Telomeres prevent the loss of coding genetic material during chromosomal replication. Previous research suggests that shorter telomere length may be associated with lower survival. Because genetic factors are important for individual differences in both telomere length and mortality, this association could reflect genetic or environmental pleiotropy rather than a direct biological effect of telomeres. We demonstrate through within-pair analyses of Swedish twins that telomere length at advanced age is a biomarker that predicts survival beyond the impact of early familial environment and genetic factors in common with telomere length and mortality. Twins with the shortest telomeres had a three times greater risk of death during the follow-up period than their co-twins with the longest telomere measurements [hazard ratio (RR) = 2.8, 95% confidence interval 1.1–7.3, P = 0.03].