Background: To our knowledge, there are no experimental studies that have addressed the effects of starvation on the maintenance of telomere length. Two epidemiologic studies that have addressed this topic gave controversial results. Objective: We characterized leukocyte telomere length (LTL) in a Chuvash population that was comprised of survivors of the mass famine of 1922-1923 and in these survivors' descendants. Design: The tested cohort consisted of native Chuvash men (n = 687) and women (n = 647) who were born between 1909 and 1980 and who resided in small villages in the Chuvash Republic of the Russian Federation. Data were gathered during 3 expeditions undertaken in 1994, 1999, and 2002. With the use of this method of gathering the study cohort, we were able to treat age and birth year as independent variables (i.e., after adjustment for age, we were able to analyze how LTL correlates with a birth year in the interval between 1909 and 1980). The DNA of peripheral blood leukocytes was used to measure the telomere length with a quantitative polymerase chain reaction technique. Results: The main observations were as follows: 1) there were shorter leukocyte telomeres in men born after 1923 (i.e., after the mass famine) than in men born before 1922 (i.e., before the mass famine); 2) there was a stable inheritance of shorter telomeres by men of ensuing generations; and 3) there was an absence of a correlation between LTL and birth year in women. Conclusions: Our study does not provide direct evidence for leukocyte telomere shortening in famine survivors. However, the comparative analysis of LTL in the survivors and their descendants suggests that such an effect did take place. The study also implies that mass famine may be associated with telomere shortening in male descendants of famine survivors. This observation is in agreement with the thrifty telomere hypothesis predicting that longer telomeres are disadvantageous in nutritionally marginal environments.
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© 2016 American Society for Nutrition.
- Cohort study