Telomeres are specialised DNA-protein structures at the end of chromosomes, and are vital to preserve chromosome integrity and stability. Telomeres are known to shorten with age, but prematurely shortened telomeres have been found in cells from human atherosclerotic plaques, and a previous relationship between telomere length and coronary artery disease has been described.
Using data from the second European Atherosclerosis Research Study (EARS II), Salpea et al. looked at the association between mean telomere length in various populations across Europe and their association with a parental history of premature myocardia infarction (age <55 years). The mean leukocyte telomere length was measured in 369 male students aged between 18-28 years, all of whom had a paternal history of premature myocardial infarction, and compared to a control group of 396 with no family history. After adjustment for age and geographical region, the controls had a shorter telomere length by a mean length of 550 base pairs (p=0.05).
The findings of this study suggest that, in young men at least, a familial risk of myocardial infarction is associated with short telomeres, although whether this is a causative association remains unknown. Indeed, short telomeres have been found in many major diseases, particularly cancer, and it is currently unclear whether they play any biological role in specific diseases or are merely markers of an increased “genetic age” and hence an increased risk of disease in general. Prospective studies with follow-up measurements of telomere length will help to determine whether a genetic tendency to short telomeres in leukocytes are at an increase risk for developing ischaemic heart disease, independent of traditional risk factors.
- Salpea KD, Nicaud V, Tiret L et al. The association of telomere length with paternal history of premature myocardial infarction in the European Atherosclerosis Research Study II. J Mol Med 2008;86:815-824