The Link between Mitochondria and Aging


Jennifer Brix, ND
Happy senior woman leading her family to a perfect picnic place on the hill.

As the years tick away, are relentless fatigue, muscle weakness, and frequent forgetting really just parts of the aging process that is inevitable and irreversible?

A New Perspective on Aging

It is true that aging is a scientific, biological, and physiological process. And until very recently, the scientific community believed that the aging process and diseases related to age could not be prevented. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize aging as a condition, and therefore does not approve drugs or nutrients that could support the aging process. But one field of science – geroscience – is attempting to change this. Geroscience is finding ways to delay the onset of age-related diseases and extend the human lifespan, suggesting that aging is indeed a medical condition.

Playing football with grandad

The Health of our Cells is the Key

Remarkable advances have been made in the last several years alone, and many of these have focused on mitochondrial health. Mitochondria, the organelles inside our cells responsible for producing energy, deserve this attention as they are proving to be a significant and literal player in our lives. In addition to generating cellular energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), they also produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which is analogous to a car’s greenhouse gas emissions when the engine is running.

Supporting Cell Health as Cells Age Weakens

Despite our mitochondria having compensation systems to neutralize free radical damage, as cells age, mitochondria’s ability to protect them weakens. With the aging process comes reduced ATP production and increased free radical generation. Think of an old, worn-out car; its engine becomes sluggish and exhaust more noxious as it ages.

Recycling of Mitochondria

There must also exist a balance between mitochondrial creation and recycling. The scientific term for this is mitophagy, which can be described as a quality control check that helps the degradation of damaged mitochondria.[1] Evidence from in vitro studies suggests that enhanced mitophagy promotes healthy aging and can delay the onset and progression of various age-related concerns.[2]

The Role of Mitochondria and our Health

Optimizing the health of mitochondria is important for every cell in our body when it comes to aging, from muscle cells to brain cells and everything in between. Let’s now look at how mitochondrial health is connected to common health conditions, and how understanding the underlying mechanisms of mitochondrial dysfunction may hold the key to preventing many age-related conditions.

Cardiovascular Health

Mitochondrial dysfunction is believed to be associated with numerous cardiac diseases, such as atherosclerosis, ischemia-reperfusion injury, heart failure, and hypertension.[3] Poorly controlled blood sugar, cigarette smoking, and stress can all accelerate the aging process in blood vessels by damaging mitochondrial DNA and increasing free radicals.

Muscle Health

Muscle cells are some of the most active cells in the body, and so they contain a large number of mitochondria – up to 30,000 per cell! As in other tissues, mitochondria generate energy in our muscles, a key element in the contraction and relaxation of muscles.[4] Sarcopenia, defined as an age-dependent loss of muscle mass and strength, may be a major consequence of poorly functioning mitochondria.[5]

Mid-adult woman working out at home

To help keep our muscles strong and healthy as we age, be sure to consume enough protein, engage in weight-bearing and strength-training exercises, and remember to warm up and stretch your muscles when being active.

Cognition and Memory

The human brain constitutes only 2% of body weight but requires 20% of the metabolic output in the body.[6] With this high energy demand, it is particularly sensitive to unhealthy mitochondria.[7] Although not proven in human clinical trials, it is believed that mitochondrial dysfunction is connected to age-related brain degeneration, and subsequently,  neurodegenerative diseases.[3]

Metabolic Health

Insulin levels in the body maintain blood sugar balance, and its optimal function depends on healthy pancreatic beta cells, skeletal muscle, and the liver. The genes and proteins controlling mitochondrial dynamics can be dysregulated by a high glucose concentration, leading to the overproduction of ROS in these cells and eventual insulin resistance.[8] Insulin resistance – a rising epidemic – is a prominent feature and precursor to diabetes.

Energy Levels

A hallmark symptom of diagnosed mitochondrial conditions is fatigue. In these cases, poor energy is likely correlated with a loss of mitochondrial function and production of ATP.[9] With chronic fatigue being the most common complaint of patients seeking general medical care, targeted mitochondrial support may serve to help many people.[10] Instead of fuelling your energy with endless cups of coffee, supporting mitochondria to optimize production of ATP and quench free radical damage may prove beneficial.

Granddaughter running to grandma for a hug.

In the span of only a decade, accumulating evidence has revealed exciting links between mitochondrial dysfunction and age-related pathologies. What were once ideas and concepts are now preclinical and clinical approaches to stalling the aging process through mitochondrial support.

In Part 2, we will dive deeper into the main pathways of mitochondrial damage and how lifestyle tips and nutraceuticals, including plant extracts and antioxidants, can help support the generation of ATP, improve mitochondrial turnover, and ultimately support the aging process from within.

Jennifer Brix, ND
Dr. Brix completed her professional training at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine.
  1. Chen G, Kroemer G, Keep O. Mitophagy: An emerging role in aging and age-associated diseases. Front Cell Develop Biol. 2020; 8:200. 
  2. Madeo F, Tavernarakis N, Kroemer G. Can autophagy promote longevity? Nat Cell Biol. 2010; 12:842-6. 
  3. Poznyak AV, Ivanova EA, Sobenin IA, et al. The role of mitochondria in cardiovascular diseases. Biology. 2020; 9(6):137. 
  4. Abrigo J, Simon F, Cabrera D, et al. Mitochondrial dysfunction in skeletal muscle pathologies. Curr Protein Peptide Sci. 2019; 20(6):536-46. 
  5. Bellanti F, Buglio AL, Vendemiale G. Muscle delivery of mitochondria-targeted drugs for the treatment of sarcopenia: Rationale and perspectives. Pharmaceutics. 2022; 14(12):2588. 
  6. Attwell D, Laughlin SB. An energy budget for signaling in the grey matter of the brain. J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2001; 21:1133-45. 
  7. Trigo D, Avelar C, Fernandes M, et al. Mitochondria, energy, and metabolism in neuronal health and disease. FEBS Letters. 2022; 596(9):1095-110. 
  8. Lowell BB, Shulman GI. Mitochondrial dysfunction and type 2 diabetes. Science. 2005; 307(5708):384-7. 
  9. Filler K, Lyon D, Bennett J, et al. Association of mitochondrial dysfunction and fatigue: A review of the literature. BBA Clin. 2014; 1:12-23. 
  10. Kroenke K, Wood DR, Mangelsdorff AD, et al. Chronic fatigue in primary care. Prevalence, patient characteristics, and outcome. JAMA. 1988; 260(7):929-34.