Telomere Length and the Cancer–Atherosclerosis Trade-Off

Rivka C. Stone, Kent Horvath, Jeremy D. Kark, Ezra Susser, Sarah A. Tishkoff, Abraham Aviv

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Modern humans, the longest-living terrestrial mammals, display short telomeres and repressed telomerase activity in somatic tissues compared with most short-living small mammals. The dual trait of short telomeres and repressed telomerase might render humans relatively resistant to cancer compared with short-living small mammals. However, the trade-off for cancer resistance is ostensibly increased age-related degenerative diseases, principally in the form of atherosclerosis. In this communication, we discuss (a) the genetics of human telomere length, a highly heritable complex trait that is influenced by genetic ancestry, sex, and paternal age at conception, (b) how cancer might have played a role in the evolution of telomere biology across mammals, (c) evidence that in modern humans telomere length is a determinant (rather than only a biomarker) of cancer and atherosclerosis, and (d) the potential influence of relatively recent evolutionary forces in fashioning the variation in telomere length across and within populations, and their likely lasting impact on major diseases in humans. Finally, we propose venues for future research on human telomere genetics in the context of its potential role in shaping the modern human lifespan.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1006144
JournalPLoS genetics
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Cancer Research


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