Could Childhood Colds Affect Your Lifespan?

New research out of the University of Washington and Northwestern University has shown that the more infections you had as an infant, the more at risk your DNA may be as an adult. As with much of the research we’ve covered lately, the focus of this study was telomeres.

Telomeres are the protective ends of our DNA. They are a simple repeating sequence of base pairs that gets worn down over time. The longer your telomeres are, the longer it takes for stress and disease to begin eating away at your DNA. If you want to learn a little bit more about telomeres, we’ve written about them before.

Linking Childhood Colds and Telomeres
In this recent study, researchers gathered data from 1,759 mothers and their children and surveyed them periodically for 22 years. While the children were still infants, the researchers paid special attention to how often they were sick and had infections. Most infections occurred between age 6-12 months, and children who had more infections during that period had shorter telomeres when tested at age 21 compared to those with fewer infections as kids. The difference was about 45 base pairs of DNA, which is about how much telomeres shorten during three years of life.

So, Lots of Colds = Three Years Off Your Life?
Well, not necessarily. To begin with, telomere research like this is relatively new (and booming since a related Nobel Prize in 2009), so we don’t know how exactly they work yet. What we do know is that people with longer telomeres tend to live healthier for longer. There’s of course no way to go back and prevent yourself from getting infections as an infant, but there are a few things you can change in your current lifestyle to improve your telomere length: avoid smoking, sitting for long periods of time, and excess stress—all of which are associated with shorter telomeres. And, maintain an active lifestyle and exercise regularly, because evidence suggests this can keep your telomeres long.

(Feature photo courtesy of

Isaac Everitt

Isaac Everitt is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.