Mitochondria play an important role in cellular function as they are responsible for turning food and other substances into energy that drives the body’s ability to function. When these organelles begin to slow down, however, the aging process is sped up and the shape of mitochondrial networks altered.
Mitochondria are typically one of the first parts of the cell to experience dysfunction. This is particularly true of metabolically active tissues which require high amounts of cellular energy. Examples of such tissue include the brain, heart and muscles.
What Function Do Mitochondria Have?
Mitochondria play a variety of roles in the processes that make up healthy cellular function. They’re vital to the regulation of calcium, metabolization of food, generation of body heat and play an important role in the survival and death of cells. Due to their importance and influence over human health, they are sometimes referred to as powerhouses, or the engines of cells.
Essentially, mitochondria are the root of good health. Healthy cell function is vital to strong, healthy tissue and healthy tissue means better health in general. So it’s no coincidence that mitochondria plays a central role in the aging process.
Mitochondria are also unique in that they have their own DNA that influences the way they behave and interact with our actual DNA. As we age, mitochondria often begin to function less efficiently, which in turn causes the accrual of damaged mitochondria, an effect that is associated with aging and contributes to age related disease. For this reason, some studies suggest that triggering the body’s natural mitochondrial quality control mechanisms may be beneficial to slowing down the aging process.
How Does Mitochondria Cause Aging?
When it comes to how mitochondria fuels the aging process, theories tend to revolve around what researchers call reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are produced in mitochondria as a byproduct of energy production. These are highly charged particles which cause damage to DNA, fats, and proteins.
The damage typically occurs in the functional parts of mitochondria, causing it to cease proper functioning. When the organelles can no longer function, more ROS is created, compounding the cellular damage.
One hallmark of aging is the development of chronic inflammation sometimes known as ‘inflammaging’. The development is characterized in part by an increase of inflammatory biomarkers. Research shows a connection between mitochondrial dysfunction and inflammaging.
According to a study published in the journal Molecular Cell, mitochondrial dysfunction also contributes to cellular senescence by changing metabolic function and increasing ROS. This is sometimes referred to as the free radical theory of aging.
Some research suggests that mutations of mitochondria may be caused by abundance of dietary fat around muscle. For this reason, a study published in PLoS One suggests that time-controlled benefits of fasting can “limit mitochondrial damage and metabolic disturbances induced by high fat diets.”
Further research is now pointing to a relationship between mitochondria and the health and fate of stem cells as we age, our levels of oxidative stress and even the development of cancers. The research shows that these organelles are a vital part of human health and one of the great influencers at work in the body.