Estimating Telomere Length Heritability in an Unrelated Sample of Adults: Is Heritability of Telomere Length Modified by Life Course Socioeconomic Status?

Telomere length (TL) is a widely used marker of biological aging and is associated with an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. Recently, there has been evidence for an association between TL and socioeconomic status (SES), particularly for measures of education and childhood SES. Individual differences in TL are also influenced by genetic factors, with heritability estimates from twin and sibling studies ranging from 34 to 82 percent. Yet the additive heritability of TL as a result of measured genetic variations and the extent to which heritability is modified by SES is still unknown. Data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative cohort of older adults (mean age 69years), were used to provide the first estimates of molecular-based heritability of TL using genome-wide complex trait analysis (GCTA). We found that additive genetic variance contributed 28 percent (p=.012) of total phenotypic variance of TL in the European American sample (n=3,290). Estimation using the GCTA and KING Robust relationship inference methods did not differ significantly in this sample. None of the variance from the gene-by-SES interactions examined contributed significantly to the total TL variance. Estimation of heritability and genetic interaction with SES in the African American sample (n=442) was too unstable to provide reliable estimates.