Educational attainment but not measures of current socioeconomic circumstances are associated with leukocyte telomere length in healthy older men and women

  • Steptoe A
  • Hamer M
  • Butcher L
 et al. 
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Low socioeconomic status (SES) may be associated with accelerated biological aging, but findings relating SES with telomere length have been inconsistent. We tested the hypotheses that shorter telomere length and telomerase activity would be related more robustly to education, an early life indicator of socioeconomic position, than to current indicators of socioeconomic circumstances. Healthy men and women aged 53-76. years from the Whitehall II epidemiological cohort provided blood samples from which telomere length was assessed in 448 and telomerase activity in 416. Educational attainment was classified into four levels, while household income and grade of employment were measured as indicators of current socioeconomic circumstances. Age, gender, blood pressure, glycated hemoglobin, high density lipoprotein cholesterol, smoking, body mass index and physical activity were included as covariates. We found that lower educational attainment was associated with shorter telomere length after controlling statistically for biological and behavioral covariates. Neither household income nor employment grade was related to telomere length. The association between telomere length and education remained significant after adjusting for current socioeconomic circumstances. In men, highest levels of telomerase activity were found in the lowest education group. We conclude that low SES defined in terms of education but not current socioeconomic circumstances is associated with shortened telomeres. Low educational attainment may be an indicator of long-term SES trajectories, and be associated with accumulated allostatic load resulting in telomere shortening. Education may also promote problem-solving skills leading to reduced biological stress responsivity, with favorable consequences for biological aging. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Biological aging
  • Education
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Telomeres

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