Is the association between paternal age at birth and offspring leukocyte telomere length (LTL) an artifact of early life socioeconomic status (SES)?
Indicators of early life SES did not alter the relationship between paternal age at birth and offspring LTL among a population of white female nurses.
What is known already:
Telomere length is considered a highly heritable trait. Recent studies report a positive correlation between paternal age at birth and offspring LTL. Maternal age at birth has also been positively associated with offspring LTL, but may stem from the strong correlation with paternal age at birth.
Study design, size and duration:
The Nurses' Health Study (NHS) is an ongoing prospective cohort study of 121 700 female registered nurses who were enrolled in 1976. Great effort goes into maintaining a high degree of follow-up among our cohort participants (>95% of potential person-years). In 1989-1990, a subset of 32 826 women provided blood samples from which we selected participants for several nested case-control studies of telomere length and incident chronic disease. We used existing LTL data on a total of 4250 disease-free women who also reported maternal and paternal age at birth for this study.
Participants/materials, setting and methods:
Nested case-control studies of stroke, myocardial infarction, cancers of the breast, endometrium, skin, pancreas and colon, as well as colon adenoma, were conducted within the blood sub-cohort. Each study used the following study design: for each case of a disease diagnosed after blood collection, a risk-set sampling scheme was used to select from one to three controls from the remaining participants in the blood sub-cohort who were free of that disease when the case was diagnosed. Controls were matched to cases by age at blood collection (± 1 year), date of blood collection (± 3 months), menopausal status, recent postmenopausal hormone use at blood collection (within 3 months, except for the myocardial infarction case-control study), as well as other factors carefully chosen for each individual study. The current analysis was limited to healthy controls. We also included existing LTL data from a small random sample of women participating in a cognitive sub-study. LTL was measured using the quantitative PCR-based method. Exposure and covariate information are extracted from biennial questionnaires completed by the participants.
Main results and the role of chance:
We found a strong association between paternal age at birth and participant LTL (P = 1.6 × 10(-5)) that remained robust after controlling for indicators of early life SES. Maternal age at birth showed a weak inverse association with participant LTL after adjusting for age at blood collection and paternal age at birth (P = 0.01). We also noted a stronger association between paternal age at birth and participant LTL among premenopausal than among postmenopausal women (P(interaction) = 0.045). However, this observation may be due to chance as premenopausal women represented only 12.6% (N = 535) of the study population and LTL was not correlated with age at menopause, total or estrogen-only hormone therapy (HT) use suggesting that changes in in vivo estrogen exposure do not influence telomere length regulation.
Limitations and reasons for caution:
The women in our study are not representative of the general US female population, with an underrepresentation of non-white and low social class groups. Although the interaction was not significant, we noted that the paternal age at birth association with offspring LTL appeared weaker among women whose parents did not own their home at the time of the participant's birth. As telomere dynamics may differ among individuals who are most socioeconomically deprived, SES indicators may have more of an influence on the relationship between paternal age at birth and offspring LTL in such populations.
Wider implications of the findings:
As of yet, our and prior studies have not identified childhood or adult characteristics that confound the paternal age at birth association with offspring LTL, supporting the hypothesis that offspring may inherit the longer telomeres found in sperm of older men. The biological implications of the paternal age effect are unknown. A recent theory proposed that the inheritance of longer telomere from older men may be an adaptive signal of reproductive lifespan, while another theory links telomere length attrition to female reproductive senescence. However, we are unaware of any data to substantiate a relationship between paternal age at birth and daughter's fertility. Generalizability of our study results to other white female populations is supported by prior reports of paternal age at birth and offspring telomere length. Furthermore, a confounding relationship between paternal or maternal age at birth and SES was not observed in a study of SES and telomere length.
Study funding/competing interest(s):
This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants numbers: CA87969, CA49449, CA065725, CA132190, CA139586, HL088521, CA140790, CA133914, CA132175, ES01664 to M.D.); and by the American Health Association Foundation. We have no competing interests to declare.