A study investigating susceptibility to the common cold found people with shorter tips on their chromosomes - called telomeres - in white blood cells were more likely to develop symptoms.
Researchers now hope to use telomere length to predict those who may be at risk of certain diseases.
Telomeres are sections of DNA on the ends of chromosomes that shrink as the cell ages. Shorter telomeres have already been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death. Yet their role in the health of younger adults remains unclear.
To investigate this, researchers assessed telomere length in four types of blood cells, including leukocytes, in 152 healthy adult patients aged 18 to 55 years.
Participants were then administered nasal drops containing rhinovirus 39 - the common cold virus - and monitored for the development of clinical illness and infection.
A total of 69% of 105 participants developed an infection and 22% developed the common cold. Shorter telomere lengths in all four cell types were associated with greater odds of developing infection from age 22, following exposure to the cold virus.
The telomere length of one type of immune cell, called CD8CD28- cells, had the greatest association with infection and was the only cell type associated with the development of clinical illness.
Professor Sheldon Cohen, lead author of the study, explains the findings
Lead author Professor Sheldon Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania said: 'These cells are important in eliminating infected cells and those with shorter telomeres in the CD8CD28- cell population may be at greater risk for infection because they have fewer functional cells available to respond to the [cold] virus.'
He added: 'Our work suggests the possibility that telomere length is a relatively consistent marker across the life span and that it can start predicting disease susceptibility in young adulthood.'