Theories of Aging: Mitochondrial

Denham Harman introduced the mitochondrial theory of aging (MTA) in 1972. He is also considered the the “father” of the “free radical” theory of aging (FRTA), perhaps the best known theory of modern times. The MTA is a further refinement of the FRTA, which adds additional elements of aging processes such as cell genetics, the chemistry of cell membranes and energy production in the cell’s mitochondria.


Without getting too technical, mitochondria are small “organs” that exist in almost every cells of your body, with the exception of red blood cells. The mitochondria are the “energy factories” of the cells, producing roughly 90% of your body’s ATP energy in the body. Each cell may have 20 or as many as 2500 mitochondria depending upon cell type.

Without these energy producing organs in your cells you could not live. They power your heart, muscles, brain, and allow you to breathe and function. They are energy producing machines, but they can cause problems if they don’t function optimally. Each mitochondria contains its own DNA, so it can divide like a normal cell to further energy production. This has a good and a bad side.

This remarkable feature of mitochondria – that they contain their own DNA – is also the source of problems if the DNA mutates or becomes damaged. And there is another downside to mitochondrial DNA. It doesn’t have the robust protective mechanisms to prevent damage from free radicals – oxidized molecules that scavenge your cells by stealing missing electrons from healthy cells, called oxidation.

Studies show that mitochondrial DNA is far more susceptible to free radical damage than normal cells. Since mitochondria are necessary for producing much of your body’s energy, this is a glaring weakness in your body’s energy and aging system. The genetic damage to mitochondria accumulates over your entire life, and an average 90 year old man has only about 5% of his mitochondrial DNA free from mutation and damage! Ever wonder why old people are so weak and lacking in energy? They have damage to the mitochondria of their cells.

So much energy is produced by these tiny energy powerhouses that they create large amounts of potentially harmful free radicals. So the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The real problem is that when the DNA or genetic material of your mitochondria become damaged, you not only suffer from dramatically lower energy levels, but you become more susceptible to disease because your immune system needs energy to fight disease. And some theorize that disease and aging is caused my mutations in your cells.

MTA researcher Bruce Ames issued this statement with his colleagues in 2002: “It is generally accepted that oxidative mitochondrial decay is a major contributor to aging.” The good news is that by taking powerful antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid, we can greatly reduce DNA damage in the mitochondria, staving off disease and prolonging our lives. We know that mitochondrial damage increases with age.

Glutathione (GSH) plays an important function in protecting mitochondrial DNA from oxidative damage. While semi-damaged DNA can perform basic energy producing and protective functions, when energy production is increased during routine exertion they fail to function adequately. We will discuss some ways to maintain adequate levels of the antioxidant glutathione, however, I believe genetic damage to mitochondria is one of the major causes of aging and disease.

Luckily, there are many things we can do to prevent mitochondrial damage. Eating less, or calorie restriction, is one, but who wants to go arount hungry all the time and look like a scarecrow? The good news is that with proper antioxidant supplementation, you can eat all the junk food you want and still prevent disease and live to a ripe old age.


The B vitamins have been shown in study after study to help prevent disease and aging. They are incredibly important vitamins that unfortunately deplete rapidly with stress. The B vitamins play an important role in scavenging free radicals from mitochondria and keeping your cells’ genetic structure healthy by coenzyme binding to damaged enzymes and prolonging their healthy productivity. You don’t need to understand the science to know they work. Take many times the recommended RDA for the B vitamin complex as the US government and the FDA don’t have a clue about human health. Or more to the point, they have a vested financial interested in keeping you sick and paying billions of dollars a year to the pharmaceutical companies. You decide. Everyone should take a potent multi-vitamin many times stronger than the run-of-the-mill junk peddled on your supermarket shelves. Go to and look around. I have no financial interest.


Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is a health supplement that has garnered great notoriety in the last few years, not the least for which it is an important actor existing naturally in the cell’s mitochondria. Put simply, carnitine helps maintain healthy cell structure vital for maintaining youthful functioning of the cell. When ALCAR was coupled with R-lipoic acid (a stronger form of the very potent alpha-lipoic acid), a powerful regenerative effect was noticed in the aging of the cells. Old cells simply appeared and acted younger. Aging (at least some forms) was reversed.