This is the first prospective study, meaning one that follows individuals over time, to look at this question.
The authors, from England, Austria and Italy, measured telomere length in leukocytes (white blood cells) in 787 individuals who did not have cancer, before following the individuals for 10 years, until 2005, in what is known as the Bruneck Study out of South Tyrol, Italy.
Individuals who had shorter telomere length at the start of the study were more likely to develop cancer, even after adjusting for more conventional cancer risk factors, including age.
Those with the shortest telomere length had more than triple the risk of developing cancer, and those in the middle group had twice the risk compared to those with the longest telomere length.
Those in the short telomere group also had a higher risk of dying from their malignancy than those with longer telomeres.
This may be because shorter telomere length was also associated with more aggressive cancers, such as stomach, lung and ovarian.
Still, there may be a way to keep your telomeres longer.
"Telomere shortening is accelerated by inflammation and oxidative stress as induced by unhealthy lifestyles like smoking," said Kiechl, a neurology professor at Innsbruck Medical University in Austria. "There are extensive research efforts at the moment to identify conditions (like lifestyle features) that promote or counteract telomere shortening, and this knowledge should be important for future primary prevention of cancer."
The University of Utah has more on telomeres.
SOURCES: Stefan Kiechl, M.D., professor of neurology, Innsbruck Medical University, Austria; Eliot Rosen, M.D., Ph.D., professor of oncology, Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, Washington, D.C.
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