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J Infect Dis. 2017 Sep 1;216(5):565-572. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jix255.

Persistent Herpesvirus Infections and Telomere Attrition Over 3 Years in the Whitehall II Cohort.

Author information

Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London.
Epidemiology and Biostatistics, CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, New York, New York.
Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam.
Academic Medical Centre, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Mannheim Institute of Public Health, Social and Preventive Medicine, Mannheim Medical Faculty, University of Heidelberg, Germany.
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, United Kingdom.
Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco.
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland.
Department of Epidemiology, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


The determinants of telomere attrition, a potential marker of cellular aging, are not well understood. Persistent herpesvirus infections including cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection may be particularly important for telomere dynamics via mechanisms such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and their impact on peripheral blood lymphocyte composition. This study examined the association of 4 human herpesviruses (CMV, herpes simplex virus type 1, human herpesvirus type 6, and Epstein-Barr virus) with change in leukocyte telomere length (LTL) over 3 years in 400 healthy individuals (aged 53-76 years) from the Whitehall II cohort. CMV, herpes simplex virus type 1, and human herpesvirus 6 infection were independently associated with greater 3-year LTL attrition, with no association found for Epstein-Barr virus. The magnitudes of these associations were large, for example, the equivalent of almost 12 years of chronological age for those CMV seropositive. Seropositivity to more herpesviruses was additively associated with greater LTL attrition (3 herpesviruses vs none, β = -0.07 and P = .02; 4 infections vs none, β = -0.14 and P < .001). Higher immunoglobulin G antibody levels among those seropositive to CMV were also associated with shorter LTL at follow-up. These associations were robust to adjustment for age, sex, employment grade, body mass index, and smoking status. These results suggest that exposure to infectious agents should be an important consideration in future studies of telomere dynamics.


Epstein-Barr virus; Whitehall II; cytomegalovirus; herpes simplex virus; telomeres

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