Intra- and interindividual variations of baseline frequencies of cytogenetic end points in lymphocytes of human populations have been reported by various authors. Personal characteristics seem to account for a significant proportion of this variability. Several studies investigating the role of age as a confounding factor in cytogenetic biomonitoring found an age-related increase of micronucleus (MN) frequency, whereas contradictory results were reported for chromosomal aberrations (CAs) and sister chromatid exchanges (SCEs). We have quantitatively evaluated the effect of age on SCE, CA, and MN through the analysis of a population sample that included data from several biomonitoring studies performed over the last few decades in 12 Italian laboratories. The large size of the data set, i.e., more than 2000 tests for each end point, allowed us to estimate the independent effect of age, taking into account other covariates, such as sex, smoking habits, occupational exposure, and inter- and intralaboratory variability. A greater frequency of the mean standardized values by increasing of age was observed for all of the end points. A leveling off was evident in the last age classes in the trend of MN frequencies. Frequency ratios (FRs), which express the increase of the cytogenetic damage with respect to the first age classes, i.e., 1-19 years, were estimated using Poisson regression analysis after adjustment for the potential confounding factors and confirmed the increasing trend by age class for all three end points. The most dramatic increase was observed for MN, with a FR that approaches the value of 2 at the age class 50-59 (FR, 1.97; 95% confidence interval, 1.43-2.71) and remains substantially unchanged thereafter. The trend of FRs for CA is more homogeneous, with a constant rise even in the older classes, whereas the frequency of SCE increases with age to a lesser extent, reaching a plateau in the age class 40-49 and the maximum value of FR in the age class over 70 (FR, 1.14; 95% confidence interval, 1.07-1.23). In conclusion, our results point to an age-related increase of the chromosome damage in lymphocytes and emphasize the need to take into account the potential confounding effect of this variable in the design of biomonitoring studies based on chromosome damage.

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