Many theories of aging focus on processes in the body, but one theory looks at a very specific element of the body: the tiny mitochondria.
The mitochondrial theory of aging is related to the free radical theory with a focus on free radical damage to the energy-producing mitochondria. Much research points to the importance of mitochondrial damage as a potential factor in aging.
So, do mitochondria hold the secret to becoming ageless?
What are Mitochondria?
Mitochondria are tiny organelles found in every mammalian cell. They are unique in that mitochondria originated from bacteria that found their way into primitive organisms and established a mutually beneficial relationship. This gave the larger organism a readily available source of energy and provided a protective environment for the mitochondria. Mitochondria have their own set of genes with DNA inherited entirely from the mother.
Because mitochondria create the energy each cell needs to function and thrive, they are deemed the “powerhouses” of the cell. They take the crude energy the body receives in the form of food and turn it into usable ATP, giving the cell – and the body – life.
Mitochondrial damage is one of the main issues in the development of certain illnesses and age-related diseases. The importance of mitochondria in maintaining function and health has been known for many years, but research is now shedding light on how mitochondria impact the aging process.
The Early Origins of Mitochondria: Forging a Symbiotic Relationship
Billions of years before humans walked the Earth, life was simpler — so much simpler, in fact, that it consisted of only one-celled organisms. For these organisms, finding energy was easy. They simply absorbed it through the environment into their cell wall, and it was then distributed throughout the cell.
Over time, more complex multi-celled organisms developed, and this absorption process no longer provided enough energy. More complex organisms needed help creating and storing the fuel they needed for life.
At this time, a historic symbiotic relationship developed as bacteria were incorporated into the cells of complex organisms. Both thrived together. The cells used the bacteria for energy stores, while the bacteria had a safe place to live with protection from the outside environment. These bacteria became what we know to be mitochondria.
Mitochondria and DNA
Mitochondria remained within cells as complex organisms evolved over time, but they retained their own genetic material. Human cells have DNA in the central part of the cell (nucleus) and a separate set of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).
This mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother, meaning all the mitochondrial DNA in one’s body is from the maternal lineage of the family. This can be an important factor when considering some health conditions related to only mitochondrial DNA, like Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.
Researchers believe this mtDNA may also provide an understanding of differences in aging and even how to prevent early aging.
Mitochondrial Aging and the Effects of Free Radical Damage
When the cell creates energy, whether for immediate use or later storage, free radicals naturally result. While this is a natural and important life-giving process, excessive free radical activity damages the body and quickens the aging process.
Because mitochondria are the main energy producers in the cell, they experience the effects of free radical damage most directly. This constant exposure to free radicals is considered one of the main ways that our body ages. As mitochondria become damaged over time, their ability to create energy becomes impaired. This slows the metabolism of the cell – and the body in general.
When we consider aging, this makes sense. Older people tend to have a slower metabolism, move slower, and are less energetic than younger people. As far as skin health and aging goes, this slower energy metabolism also contributes to slower healing and skin regeneration.
Do Mitochondria Hold the Secret to Aging?
While the science, history, and healing potential of mitochondria are hot topics in research and exploration, there is much to learn about these mighty organelles. At present, there is no exact description linking mitochondrial damage to general aging. It is also not clearly known if certain supplements, vitamins, or other treatments may impact mitochondrial aging. Still, this proves to be a fascinating area of exploration that will shed more light on how we age.