"Now, the question as to whether or not this shortening is an indicator of cellular aging or of some kind of other biological problem is largely debatable," Lee cautioned, "because the shortening of telomeres is also associated with a lot of diseases. Heart disease, Alzheimer's and diabetes, for example. Even mothers with children who have certain disabilities have been shown to, themselves, have shorter telomeres."
All this "makes it really difficult to figure out exactly what's going on, whether telomere length is an independent factor in aging or a consequence," Lee added. "It could, in fact, be both. We're not really sure."
Study author Schaefer acknowledged that "at this time, there are no practical implications of knowing telomere length. Telomere length may help us to better understand the factors that underlie aging, but it cannot predict health or disease with any precision. The health effects of a number of behaviors that are related to telomere length, such as smoking, are well known."
Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
And while the study found an association between telomere length and mortality, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
For more about telomeres, visit the University of Utah.
SOURCES: Catherine Schaefer, Ph.D., director, research program on genes, environment and health, Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif; Joseph H. Lee, Ph.D., human geneticist, and associate professor of clinical epidemiology, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York City; Nov. 8, 2012, presentation, American
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