Mitochondrial Efficiency: The Fountain of Youth?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Super Human" by Dave Asprey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s biological age? Is it possible to slow down biological aging? If so, how?

Dave Asprey argues that mitochondrial efficiency plays a key role in biological aging. He discusses the role of mitochondria, how efficient mitochondria maintain cellular health while inefficient mitochondria degrade it, and how mitochondrial efficiency impacts overall health and biological aging.

Continue reading to learn about the importance of your body’s mitochondrial efficiency.

Principle #1: Mitochondria Manage Cellular Health

Mitochondria are tiny organelles that live within your cells. According to Asprey, mitochondrial efficiency is critical because mitochondria manage cellular health and functionality. They do this through a number of processes, including:

  • Extracting energy from your body’s metabolic processes to power your cells
  • Killing off and disposing of dysfunctional cells that would otherwise clog up your system
  • Replacing dead or dysfunctional cells with healthy cells

(Shortform note: The number of mitochondria required to manage different cell types varies. This is because, while mitochondria do manage multiple cellular processes, their primary role is to produce energy that powers your cells (which, in turn, generates more than 90% of your body’s energy). As such, the number of mitochondria in each cell depends on how much energy that particular cell requires to function. For example, heart cells have the most mitochondria (nearly 5,000 per cell) because the heart requires more energy to function than any other organ in the body. In contrast, red blood cells have no mitochondria because their structure allows them to draw on cytoplasm to fuel their minimum energy requirements.)

Asprey argues that, the more efficiently your mitochondria manage these processes, the better your cells are at maintaining your mental and physical health. 

(Shortform note: Cellular health is key to maintaining good health because cells are the basic building blocks of all living tissues and organs (your body is made up of over 75 trillion of them), and they directly affect every process that happens in your body. If your cells don’t function properly, your body can’t function properly.)

Principle #2: Inefficient Mitochondria Damage Your Cells

According to Asprey, when extracting energy from your body’s metabolic processes, mitochondria create two by-products: 

  • Free radicals: These molecules initiate a chemical reaction (oxidation) that damages the structure of your cells.
  • Antioxidants: These molecules inhibit the damaging effects of free radicals and keep your cells in good health. 

When your mitochondria function efficiently, they create sufficient antioxidants to counteract the damaging effects of free radicals and keep your cells in prime condition. On the other hand, inefficient mitochondria are unable to produce enough antioxidants to defend your cells against free radicals—resulting in cellular damage.

Excess Free Radicals and Cellular Damage Cause Chronic Inflammation

Asprey explains that, when excess free radicals damage your cells, they inhibit a key mitochondrial process—removing dysfunctional cells from your body. These dysfunctional cells linger in your system, secreting inflammatory proteins that accumulate in your body and cause chronic inflammation.

According to Asprey, chronic inflammation makes you more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Each of these effects contributes to a vicious cycle that causes further cellular damage:

  1. Insufficient antioxidant production results in an excess of free radicals that damage cells and create inflammation. 
  2. This inflammation damages more cells, overloads mitochondria with even more dysfunctional cells to process, and creates more inflammatory proteins in the body.
  3. Because cellular damage and inflammation inhibit mitochondria from working efficiently, they cause mitochondria to produce fewer antioxidants and more free radicals—which results in even more cellular damage and inflammation.

Principle #3: Mitochondrial Efficiency Determines Your Biological Age

Asprey argues that the key to living a long and youthful life is to ensure that mitochondria work efficiently enough to optimize cellular health. This is because efficient mitochondria decelerate biological aging: By supporting cellular health and function, they keep you in good mental and physical health, maintain your immunity against illness and disease, and help you look and feel younger than your age.

On the other hand, inefficient mitochondria accelerate biological aging: Because they damage cellular health and function, they weaken your mental and physical health, make you more susceptible to illnesses and diseases that wreak further havoc on your cells, and make you look and feel older than your age. According to Asprey, these effects trigger the mental and physical deterioration that we associate with old age—such as memory loss or aches and pains.

What’s Your Biological Age?

Research supports Asprey’s claims about the link between mitochondrial efficiency and biological aging: The impact of mitochondria on cellular health lies at the heart of many anti-aging research studies. Scientists in the field agree on four things:

—Mitochondrial health impacts cellular health.
—Cellular health determines your biological age, your overall health, and your life expectancy.
—Your lifestyle impacts your cellular health and your biological age.
—You can improve cellular health and lower your biological age by making healthy lifestyle changes. 

As such, many scientists claim that knowing your biological age helps you make appropriate lifestyle decisions to lower it. But, how can you find out your biological age? A number of facilities can analyze the cells in blood or urine samples to determine your biological age. Alternatively, there are online calculators that claim to provide this information based on how you respond to various questions. However, the information these calculators require varies greatly: Some ask for detailed medical information while others ask only a few simple lifestyle questions.
Mitochondrial Efficiency: The Fountain of Youth?

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  • How to grow older without the negative side effects
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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