Abstract Given the central role of DNA in life, and how ageing can be seen as the gradual and irreversible breakdown of living systems, the idea that damage to the DNA is the crucial cause of ageing remains a powerful one. DNA damage and mutations of different types clearly accumulate with age in mammalian tissues. Human progeroid syndromes resulting in what appears to be accelerated ageing have been linked to defects in DNA repair or processing, suggesting that elevated levels of DNA damage can accelerate physiological decline and the development of age-related diseases not limited to cancer. Higher DNA damage may trigger cellular signalling pathways, such as apoptosis, that result in a faster depletion of stem cells, which in turn contributes to accelerated ageing. Genetic manipulations of DNA repair pathways in mice further strengthen this view and also indicate that disruption of specific pathways, such as nucleotide excision repair and non-homologous end joining, is more strongly associated with premature ageing phenotypes. Delaying ageing in mice by decreasing levels of DNA damage, however, has not been achieved yet, perhaps due to the complexity inherent to DNA repair and DNA damage response pathways. Another open question is whether DNA repair optimization is involved in the evolution of species longevity, and we suggest that the way cells from different organisms respond to DNA damage may be crucial in species differences in ageing. Taken together, the data suggest a major role of DNA damage in the modulation of longevity, possibly through effects on cell dysfunction and loss, although understanding how to modify DNA damage repair and response systems to delay ageing remains a crucial challenge.