Recent studies are pointing more toward mitochondrial dysfunction as a cause of aging and diseases associated with age.
Mitochondrial dysfunction and aging has been a topic of research for about 10 years, but just within the past few years it has also been linked to all age-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Mitochondria deteriorate with age, but studies are now being done to develop the reasons why and to find ways to delay the process.
One hypothesis for mitochondrial dysfunction is that it is simply cumulative damage accrued over a lifespan. Patrick Bradshaw, assistant professor of biology at the University of South Florida, believes the problem is more complex than that. “Mitochondria are the central regulator of metabolism and cell function relies on them,” Bradshaw explained.
“Changes in metabolism occur with age so mitochondrial function may change, which leads to dysfunction,” he added.
Mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, play an important role in cell life and death. Mitochondrial dysfunction is the “point of no return” according to Bradshaw. This may help explain age-related diseases which occur alongside cell death. For example, as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain shrinks because 50 percent of brain cells die, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that life expectancy in the United States is rising, and Bradshaw estimates the amount of healthcare dollars spent on age-related diseases will double or even triple in the next 20 years. These implications illustrate the relevance of this research on mitochondrial dysfunction.
According to Bradshaw, experiments conducted at USF by himself and colleagues on transgenic mice have yielded interesting results. Green tea, dark chocolate, and darker colored fruits and vegetables delay mitochondrial dysfunction. Exercise is also beneficial; however, they have found that large amounts of high-stress exercise can be detrimental.
Bradshaw explains that thus far there is no one chemical or practice that can directly prevent mitochondrial dysfunction, but “multi-pronged strategies like combining exercise with natural compounds” can help protect cells.