Mitochondrial Dysfunction: How It Affects Aging

Written by Ahmed Zayed | Last updated on August 4, 2023

Cells are quite a complicated topic to understand, but by breaking things down into different pieces, it becomes easier.

In this article, we’re discussing mitochondrial dysfunction. When you read about the 12 Hallmarks of aging, you’ll notice this term.

Think about a power plant that supplies your home with electricity.

Similar to this plant, the mitochondria are also like a “powerhouse” for your cells. It’s a type of organelle that’s really important for energy production.

When the mitochondria don’t function properly, you can start to experience health problems.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what the mitochondria are, how it affects your cells, and what happens when it doesn’t function properly anymore.

Anatomy And Physiology Of Mitochondria


Do you know what the mitochondria is? Well, it’s something that “lives” inside your cells. The “technical” name: organelles [1]. It's Important to know how the mitochondria works and how it looks. 

There are a couple of components that make up the mitochondria, so let’s dive into this:

  • Just like your skin surrounds your body, your mitochondria has an outer “shell” that’s called a membrane. It’s a smooth shell that allows molecules to enter and exist your mitochondria. 

  • Think about a time you cut yourself and blood started flowing out from your skin - ouch! Well, similar to that, there’s this space underneath that outer membrane that contains proteins and enzymes - they are there for a reason, just like blood is supplying your skin with nutrients and oxygen. 

  • The inner membrane of the mitochondria has a folded structure. These folds are called cristae. The proteins inside the inner membrane are important for the production of ATP. 

  • At the center of the mitochondria lies a matrix. There’s an inner membrane that sits around the matrix. This matrix looks like a type of gel and contains the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA). There are also enzymes inside this matrix. 

Apart from the actual structure, it’s important to also note that the mitochondria contains ribosomes, ATP synthase, and transport proteins.

The ATP synthase is an enzyme that converts ADP (adenosine diphosphate) into ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the type of energy that cells can use to work properly. 

Role Of Mitochondria In Cellular Respiration

You know how carbohydrates break down, glucose enters your body, and then insulin carries the glucose into cells? Well, once this happens, there’s a process called glycolysis that activates. 

Cellular Respiration Diagram

This happens when the mitochondria breaks the glucose down even more. This results in ATP and NADH.

Now, these two molecules enter the mitochondria, where the matrix then performs pyruvate oxidation (both ATP and NADH are pyruvate molecules). 

Okay, now there are these two molecules in your mitochondria - what happens next? This is where a process that you call the “citric acid cycle” happens. Remember how the mitochondria broke down the glucose?

Well, the process helps to create Acetyle-CoA. It then combines with oxaloacetate and the result - citric acid.

And no, the process of breaking things down doesn’t end here - inside the mitochondria, this citric acid now also breaks down - and now, you have electrons. 

Just a quick note - when your mitochondria breaks the citric acid down, it also makes a tiny amount of ATP (you know, the “currency” for energy that your cells use).  

So now, you have electrons - and they have to go into the electron transport chain (let’s just call it the ETC for short!) 

Finally, the process comes to an end. You see, inside this “ETC” ATP synthesis happens - and when your mitochondria makes ATP, it allows the cell to have enough energy to work. 

Causes Of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

There are many things that can cause your mitochondria to not function properly. But, one thing that you need to understand - some of these things are “set in stone”.

As in, you can’t change them. While others, however, are “controllable”. So, let’s take a look at these causes:

  • Genetic Factors: Have you ever heard someone say “it runs in your genes”? Well, if you get a mutated gene from your mom or dad, then it can cause problems.

    And some genes specifically helps to make ATP. What does this mean? If the genes don’t “code” proteins correctly, then your mitochondria won’t make ATP as well as it should!

  • Environmental Factors: You go about your day, never really having a thought about the air you breathe in. It’s natural, right? Well, sometimes, there are pollutants in the air and they can affect your mitochondria.

    Do you wash that apple before you eat it? You see, farmers often use pesticides to keep pests away from fruit and vegetables. These pesticides are causing problems - and it goes as deep as your mitochondria. 

  • Lifestyle Factors: Following an unhealthy diet and preferring not to exercise? These are also factors that you control - and they are contributing to mitochondrial dysfunction. 

  • Aging: Similar to genetic factors, aging is one of those things that you have no control over. The older you are, the less capable the mitochondria becomes at producing ATP. 

Mitochondrial Dysfunction And Aging

model of the influence of mitochondrial dynamics on aging

You’re already aware of the fact that with age, there is a rise for the risk of certain diseases.

Well, dysfunction of the mitochondria is in part responsible for this. You see, over time, your mitochondrial DNA accumulates mutations, and this affects the mitochondria’s ability to continue making ATP [2]. 

With a reduction in ATP production, it means cells don’t have enough energy to function properly.

This leads to more oxidative stress in your body, plus cells don’t repair themselves properly. Inflammation starts to develop and your immune system becomes weaker due to these changes. 

Signs And Symptoms Of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

There are different ways in which mitochondrial dysfunction can manifest symptoms.

Many of the symptoms also relate to other conditions, which makes it difficult to identify mitochondrial dysfunction. 

Some of the general symptoms that you should look out for include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle pain
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Poor coordination
  • Nerve damage
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Poor appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Mitochondrial Diseases And Disorders

There are conditions that directly affect mitochondrial function. These include:

  • Mitochondrial Encephalomyopathy
  • Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy
  • Kearns-Sayre Syndrome
  • Leigh Syndrome
  • Mitochondrial Myopathies
  • Pearson Syndrome
  • Mitochondrial Diabetes

Diagnosis Of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

The diagnosis of mitochondrial dysfunction usually involves many steps [3]. 

patient consulting with a doctor

Your doctor first needs to do a physical examination and take a look at your medical history, but these are not enough to establish whether or not your mitochondria is not functioning properly.

Sometimes, blood tests are helpful - laboratory technicians can evaluate pyruvate, lactate, and creatine kinase in your blood.

Sometimes, they take a muscle biopsy and then look at the tissue under a microscope. This can help to evaluate the structure of your mitochondria and look at the enzymes that are involved in its processes. 

Genetic testing is another option.

Here, a sample of your DNA is used to see whether you have certain gene mutations. These mutations in your genes can predispose you to a higher risk of mitochondrial dysfunction. 

Treatment Of Mitochondrial Dysfunction

There’s no fixed treatment for mitochondrial dysfunction. Your doctor may choose to manage any symptoms you have. There are some nutrients that can offer support. 

For example, B vitamins, coenzyme Q10, and magnesium are helpful in cases where your mitochondria doesn’t work properly.

A ketogenic diet is another suggestion that your doctor could make. It’s a diet that helps to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you eat. 

It’s also helpful to exercise regularly. Other therapies can also be used as treatment, depending on how this problem affects you. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What triggers mitochondrial dysfunction?

Did you know that what you eat can affect your mitochondria? It’s not only food, but also medication.

Plus, your age, genetic mutations, and many lifestyle factors can also trigger a dysfunction in your mitochondria.

Some of these things are under your control, but things like age and genes cannot be modified. 

What are 5 symptoms of mitochondrial disease?

It really depends on how your mitochondria is affected.

If you feel tired all the time, have muscle aches, and you experience abnormalities in your heart rhythm, then these may be signs that your mitochondria is not functioning properly.

Other symptoms can include problems with your nervous system and gut. 

How does mitochondrial dysfunction affect aging?

Do you feel like you are aging faster than you should? Well, there are many things that could be causing this - and mitochondrial dysfunction is one of them.

Of course, the mitochondria doesn’t function as well as it did 20 years ago - but a faster decline in its function can make you develop health problems at an early age. 

What are the long term effects of mitochondrial dysfunction?

Feel tired? Maybe your muscles hurt? Or you can’t really handle 10 minutes on the treadmill anymore?

Gradually, mitochondrial dysfunction affects your muscles and actually all other systems in your body. There are cells over your entire body, after all - and each one of these cells have mitochondria. 

Can you reverse mitochondrial dysfunction?

You don’t have to be a time traveler to reverse mitochondrial dysfunction - but one thing to know is that things like genetics and age really can’t be controlled.

However, giving up on those “bad” habits and equipping yourself with “good” habits - that might help!


Mitochondrial function is kind of like a power generation system that helps your cells get the energy they need to work properly.

Without this energy, your cells have a hard time functioning - and when cells don’t do their job, it means you will start to experience health problems. 

Here’s the thing - as you age, your mitochondria starts to function less effectively. But, there are other things that also lead to mitochondrial dysfunction - and this problem sometimes comes on due to your own lifestyle. 

Carefully select the foods you eat and don’t skip out on exercise, as these are basic elements that can help your mitochondrial function. 


  1. The Mitochondrion. Retrieved from

  2. Mitochondria in Health, Disease, and Ageing. Retrieved from 

  3. Methodologies in Mitochondrial Testing: Diagnosing a Primary Mitochondrial Respiratory Chain Disorder. Retrieved from 

About the author 

Dr Ahmed Zayed is a medical resident specializing in plastic surgery with years of experience in the field. He is also a writer for top-rated websites including Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, ConsumerHealthDigest, and Huffington Post

You may also like