There are several theories of why aging actually happens and each of these theories seems to explain part of the story.
The Free Radical Theory of Aging
In the mid 1950s, Denham Harman, MD, PhD developed the Free Radical Theory of Aging, which explains that cells eventually break down due to free radical attack resulting from oxidative stress.
By-products of free radical damage can result in cancer, Alzheimer's, arthritis and numerous other diseases associated with aging. Overtime, the cells die, and inevitably we age and die too.
Mitochondrial Theory of Aging
A fairly recent theory (1972)—which is gaining increasing acceptance and was also proposed by Dr. Denham Harman—is the "mitochondrial damage" theory of aging.
What are mitochondria?
Mitochondria are the energy producing structures inside cells that enable them to function and repair and maintain themselves. In many ways, mitochondria are like car engines. A cell cannot function without mitochondria and a car cannot function without an engine. A car may look great on the outside and have a lousy engine. Inevitably, though, the car will end up in the shop more often than it is on the road.
Likewise, a human body with aging mitochondria will lose its ability to stay young and healthy … because those mitochondria will negatively affect the cells that make up tissues and organs, resulting in a slowing down of the entire system. Even a very slight drop in mitochondrial energy output can result in weakness, fatigue and impaired cognitive function.
Mitochondrial DNA are susceptible to free radical damage
Mitochondria contain their own DNA or genetic material, which is more susceptible to free radical damage than our cells' DNA because its protective and repair mechanisms are less efficient. Additionally, mitochondria play a major role in programmed cell death (apoptosis), which helps to destroy damaged cells before they become either cancerous and/or less able to deal with their own production of damaging free radicals.
One of the biggest surprises about the fundamental role mitochondria play in aging was a result of early cloning experiments. One study done at Lund University, Sweden showed that cloned sheep aged prematurely because they inherited cells with aged, damaged mitochondria.
As a result of these types of studies done in the past decade, the Free Radical Theory of Aging has evolved into the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging. This theory states that over time mitochondria accumulate damage to their own genetic material. This results in a progressive loss of mitochondria capable of providing sufficient energy for the optimal functioning of the cells. Ultimately, this leads to cell aging and death.
Not surprisingly, with the knowledge gained from mitochondrial aging and its consequences, scientists have sought the means to protect and rejuvenate mitochondrial functions as a potential anti-aging treatment. Luckily, some major findings have shown that it is possible to restore and maintain youthful energy production of mitochondria, even in old animals, opening up a new chapter in humankind's quest for the ability to extend the human life span.
It makes sense then, if aging starts in the mitochondria, a program to help resuscitate and protect mitochondria could have profound and long-range benefits.
Dr. Bruce Ames, professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Berkeley, put this idea to the test by giving rats a supplement designed to stimulate and protect mitochondria. The results so far have been very impressive.
Dr. Ames and his team fed older rats two chemicals normally found in the body's cells and available as dietary supplements: Acetyl-L-Carnitine and Lipoic Acid. The research was reported in three articles that appeared in the February 19, 2002 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.1
Not only did the older rats do better on memory tests, they had more pep, and the energy-producing organelles in their cells worked better.
"With the two supplements together, these old rats got up and did the Macarena," said Ames. "The brain looks better, they are full of energy—everything we looked at looks more like a young animal."2
Based on Ames' research, we now know that the combination of these two antioxidant dietary supplements supercharges the cells' energy production in order to maximize memory, health and longevity. This breakthrough research has even shown that the combination of these nutrients has the potential of not only slowing down aging, but of even reversing some signs of aging.
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Ames, Bruce, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Feb. 19, 2002, 99, 4:2356-61, 2002, 99, 4:1876-81, 2002, 99, 4:1870-5, 2002
Functional Foodnet press release, "Dietary supplements make old rats youthful, may help rejuvenate aging humans, according to UC Berkeley, study," Feb. 18, 2002.