Unfolding the mysteries of ageing

Some people subscribe to the belief that the key to ageing is the decay of the cells’ powerhouses in the body, the mitochondria.

TODAY, scientists are tempting fate in ways never before imagined as they demystify the secrets of longevity. Biochemist Bruce Ames believes that certain health supplements can repair damaged cells and make them “young” again. Molecular biologist Judith Campisi is studying how to keep cells from ageing. Both believe that while there may be no real Fountain of Youth, the reversal of ageing and an extended life span may now be on the horizon. Read on to unravel this mystery.

Mitochondrial theory of ageing

Of the many theories of ageing that have been proposed over the past decades, the most compelling theory is the Mitochondria Theory Of Ageing. A key factor in ageing is the decay of the mitochondria in our cells. (Note: Most cells in the human body contain somewhere between 500 and 2,000 mitochondria, depending on the function of the cell.)

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells – they act like tiny furnaces; the biological engines that convert carbohydrates, fats and proteins into the energy that is used by the entire body. Every time the mitochondria make energy in the presence of oxygen, harmful free radicals are also generated as by-products and must be eliminated (neutralised) before they can do harm.

The ultimate irony: the thing we need most to live – oxygen – is what’s killing us. These free radicals, if not neutralised, can cause terrible damage to every part of the mitochondria, including its membranes and DNA. (Note: Mitochondria are unusual among the structures within cells because they have their own genes – their own DNA. All other DNA is found inside a cell’s nucleus.)

The mitochondrial membranes are the key to energy production. If the membranes are damaged, less energy is produced and toxins build up, which will ultimately damage the cell. If enough cells are damaged, this will interfere with the function of the organ.

To prevent free radical damage, cells recruit a set of antioxidants. A combination of alpha lipoic acid and acetyl l-carnitine can help reduce mitochondrial damage by free radicals and also take care of mitochondrial function in all cells.

More than 200 inherited diseases have been associated with impaired mitochondrial function, including many of the most common diseases of ageing such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and stroke.

A double blow
Research performed by scientists and others have demonstrated that as we age, not only does the efficiency of our mitochondria diminish, so does their quantity per cell. The effect is a body operating at one-half to one-fourth the energy it had at youth.

The brain is perhaps the most important organ affected by ageing, since it consumes more energy than any other organ of the body.

Although the brain represents only 2% of the body’s mass, the brain consumes about 20% of the energy used by the entire body at rest.

Heart tissue, on the other hand, is more metabolically active than brain tissue. However, the heart as a whole is smaller than the brain, so the heart ends up consuming less energy than the brain.

An energy deficit in the brain and central nervous system affects the activities of all organs throughout the body as well as mental sharpness and mood.

Acetyl l-carnitine is a natural component of the inner mitochondrial membrane, especially in the heart, brain, and muscle. Hence, to maintain optimal heart health, cognitive and memory function, we need to ensure we have sufficient acetyl l-carnitine in our body. Since the levels of acetyl l-carnitine decline with age, supplementation of acetyl l-carnitine is vital as it helps restore mitochondrial function.

Alpha lipoic acid is a potent antioxidant that can help neutralise free radicals generated as by-products of energy production.

Studies found that using alpha lipoic acid will dramatically lower oxidative stress (free radical damage) in the body. If you lower oxidative stress, you reduce damage to the mitochondria. Therefore it helps protect mitochondria from free radical damage.

Brain health
Studies have found a combination of alpha lipoic acid and acetyl l-carnitine helps improve memory and cognitive (thinking) performance in older adults.

The acetyl component of acetyl-l-carnitine is associated with the formation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, a compound that is believed to affect mental function. Acetylcholine metabolism malfunction in the brain will lead to its deficiency, which is believed to be associated with age-related dementias, such as Alzheimer disease.

Heart health
Another very important function of acetyl l-carnitine is its ability to burn fatty acids (fats) for energy. Acetyl l-carnitine is involved in the transportation of long chain fatty acids into the mitochondria for conversion of energy by coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Heart function is affected when the heart becomes starved of its major fuel source, fats.

If you take acetyl l-carnitine, you improve the transportation of fatty acids and more fatty acids can be taken into the mitochondria to be utilised more efficiently to support heart function.

Coenzyme Q10’s role in energy (ATP) production is well established. Without CoQ10, the mitochondria cannot make energy; without energy there would be no life.

Although acetyl l-carnitine is able to transport fatty acids into the mitochondria to be burned into energy, coenzyme Q10 is required to convert the fatty acids into energy. Hence, both work synergistically together in energy production.

Coenzyme Q10, a powerful antioxidant, is strategically located at the mitochondria, the very site where free radicals are generated. This has proven to be beneficial in preventing damage to mitochondria membranes and mtDNA, which could directly reduce energy production. In this respect, coenzyme Q10 complements the action of alpha lipoic acid.

Everyone can benefit from taking this synergistic combination. People in their 40s or even younger could experience significant beneficial effects. The most common reported benefits are increased energy throughout the day and greater mental alertness.

Mitochondrial damage and impaired mitochondrial function in energy production have been linked to many diseases. Therefore, taking good care of the mitochondria is the best chance of keeping your cells, organs and body healthy into your later years.