• Open Access

Sex differences in telomeres and lifespan


Emma L. B. Barrett, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich Research Park, Norfolk NR4 7TJ, UK. Tel.: +44 (0) 1603 592947; fax: +44 (0) 1603 592250; e-mail: emma.barrett@uea.ac.uk


Males and females often age at different rates resulting in longevity ‘gender gaps’, where one sex outlives the other. Why the sexes have different lifespans is an age-old question, still fiercely debated today. One cellular process related to lifespan, which is known to differ according to sex, is the rate at which the protective telomere chromosome caps are lost. In humans, men have shorter lifespans and greater telomere shortening. This has led to speculation in the medical literature that sex-specific telomere shortening is one cause of sex-specific mortality. However, telomere shortening may be a cause for and/or a consequence of the processes that govern survival, and to infer general principles from single-taxon studies may be misleading. Here, we review recent work on telomeres in a variety of animal taxa, including those with reverse sexual lifespan dimorphism (i.e., where males live longer), to establish whether sex-specific survival is generally associated with sex differences in telomere dynamics. By doing this, we attempt to tease apart the potential underlying causes for sex differences in telomere lengths in humans and highlight targets for future research across all taxa.