Chromosome translocations are the hallmark of exposure to ionizing radiation, but they also occur spontaneously, and their frequencies increase dramatically with age. This complicates dosimetry unless a pre-exposure sample is available for each putatively exposed individual. Here we use published values for translocations in unexposed subjects from a wide range of ages, together with data from an in vitro 137Cs dose–response curve, to estimate the minimum dose of whole-body radiation that is detectable by translocation analyses in individuals of a given age. For subjects aged 20 to 69 years, we show that the minimum detectable acute dose increases linearly with age at a rate of 0.179, 0.218 and 0.256 cGy per year for significance levels of P = 0.05, P = 0.01 and P = 0.001, respectively. For chronic exposures, the corresponding minimum detectable doses are 1.591, 2.270 and 3.055 cGy per year. For newborns, the 95th and 99th percentiles of translocation frequencies are 0.20 and 0.31 per 100 cell equivalents, respectively, indicating that values greater than these are consistent with exposures at P = 0.05 and P = 0.01, respectively. These results improve our understanding of the requirements and limitations for performing biological dosimetry when only the age of the exposed individual is known.