Telomere length (TL) is emerging as a biomarker for aging and survival. To evaluate factors influencing this trait, we measured TL in a large homogeneous population, estimated the heritability (h(2)), and tested for parental effects on TL variation. Our sample included 356 men and 551 women, aged 18-92 years, from large Amish families. Mean TL in leukocytes was measured by quantitative PCR (mean: 6,198 +/- 1,696 bp). The h(2) of TL was 0.44 +/- 0.06 (P < 0.001), after adjusting for age, sex, and TL assay batch. As expected, TL was negatively correlated with age (r = -0.40; P < 0.001). There was no significant difference in TL between men and women, consistent with our previous findings that Amish men lived as long as Amish women. There was a stronger and positive correlation and association between TL in the offspring and paternal TL (r = 0.46, P < 0.001; beta = 0.22, P = 0.006) than offspring and maternal TL (r = 0.18, P = 0.04; beta = -0.02, P = 0.4). Furthermore, we observed a positive correlation and association between daughter's TL and paternal lifespan (r = 0.20, P < 0.001; beta = 0.21, P = 0.04), but not between daughter's TL and maternal lifespan (r = -0.01, beta = 0.04; both P = not significant). Our data, which are based on one of the largest family studies of human TL, support a link between TL and aging and lifespan and suggest a strong genetic influence, possibly via an imprinting mechanism, on TL regulation.
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