Leucocyte telomere length (LTL) is a complex trait associated with ageing and longevity. LTL dynamics are defined by LTL and its age-dependent attrition. Strong, but indirect evidence suggests that LTL at birth and its attrition during childhood largely explains interindividual LTL variation among adults. A number of studies have estimated the heritability of LTL, but none has assessed the heritability of age-dependent LTL attrition.
We examined the heritability of LTL dynamics based on a longitudinal evaluation (an average follow-up of 12 years) in 355 monozygotic and 297 dizygotic same-sex twins (aged 19-64 years at baseline).
Heritability of LTL at baseline was estimated at 64% (95% CI 39% to 83%) with 22% (95% CI 6% to 49%) of shared environmental effects. Heritability of age-dependent LTL attrition rate was estimated at 28% (95% CI 16% to 44%). Individually unique environmental factors, estimated at 72% (95% CI 56% to 84%) affected LTL attrition rate with no indication of shared environmental effects.
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This is the first study that estimated heritability of LTL and also its age-dependent attrition. As LTL attrition is much slower in adults than in children and given that having a long or a short LTL is largely determined before adulthood, our findings suggest that heritability and early life environment are the main determinants of LTL throughout the human life course. Thus, insights into factors that influence LTL at birth and its dynamics during childhood are crucial for understanding the role of telomere genetics in human ageing and longevity.