Because repeated injury of the endothelium and subsequent turnover of intimal and medial cells have been implicated in atherosclerosis, we examined telomere length, a marker of somatic cell turnover, in cells from these tissues. Telomere lengths were assessed by Southern analysis of terminal restriction fragments (TRFs) generated by Hinfl/Rsa I digestion of human genomic DNA. Mean TRF length decreased as a function of population doublings in human endothelial cell cultures from umbilical veins, iliac arteries, and iliac veins. When endothelial cells were examined for mean TRF length as a function of donor age, there was a significantly greater rate of decrease for cells from iliac arteries than from iliac veins (102 bp/yr vs. 47 bp/yr, respectively, P < 0.05), consistent with higher hemodynamic stress and increased cell turnover in arteries. Moreover, the rate of telomere loss as a function of donor age was greater in the intimal DNA of iliac arteries compared to that of the internal thoracic arteries (147 bp/yr vs. 87 bp/yr, respectively, P < 0.05), a region of the arterial tree subject to less hemodynamic stress. This indicates that the effect is not tissue specific. DNA from the medial tissue of the iliac and internal thoracic arteries showed no significant difference in the rates of decrease, suggesting that chronic stress leading to cellular senescence is more pronounced in the intima than in the media. These observations extend the use of telomere size as a marker for the replicative history of cells and are consistent with a role for focal replicative senescence in cardiovascular diseases.