Free Radicals and Aging


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These free radicals mess with our cellular metabolism, even interfering with our DNA.


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Our mitochondria, which operate like little factories in our cells, are responsible for burning fuel from food and producing energy in each of our cells via a process called oxidative phosphorylation. This metabolic pathway is a cellular chain reaction that involves a series of oxidation and reduction reactions in which atoms try to give or receive enough electrons to have a full "shell.

Normally, when an electron separates from a molecule involved in oxidation and reduction, it reattaches almost immediately to another. But when they don't, free radicals form. Under ordinary conditions, this oxidative process creates chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen.

This in turn can lead to the production of molecules of free radicals that are unstable in high concentrations. Not all free radicals are bad. Free radical formation is crucial to the process of oxidizing nutrients from our food into chemical energy. Free radical accumulation, however, be it atoms, ions or molecules, is harmful and can have severe consequences on our health.

Free Radicals and Aging

These unstable molecules are detrimental to the proper structure and function of cells throughout the body due to their ability to oxidize cells, known as oxidative stress. Free radicals damage the growth, development and survival of cells in the body. Their reactive nature allows them to engage in unnecessary side reactions causing cellular impairment and eventually injury when they are present in disproportionate amounts. They directly impair cell membranes and DNA.

How do free radicals affect the body?

This leads to cell mutation and causes new cells to grow erroneously, which means free radicals are associated with both development of cancer as well as the progression of aging. Free radicals are frequently implicated with health problems that are experienced with age, such as hardened arteries, diabetes and even wrinkle formation. Overeating further increases free radical production. As we eat more, our mitochondria release more activated oxygen than normal during energy consumption, thus generating higher levels of free radicals. And, risk of oxidative stress is greater when certain types of foods are consumed and the degree of danger can be influenced by the way in which they are prepared or cooked.

You can avoid sources of free radicals on your holiday menu by planning ahead and incorporating healthy foods. Keep in mind that free radical content is high in nutrient-poor meals and those deficient of antioxidants. Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more. Your feedback will go directly to Science X editors.

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What are free radicals?

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In fact, a new study suggests they could help us live longer. Conventional wisdom has held for decades that free radicals cause aging, and that antioxidants, which squelch the reactivity of these highly reactive molecules, are a way to slow the process. But new work adds to a growing body of research that suggests the story is not so simple.

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In the new study published in PLoS Biology , worms that made more free radicals or that were treated with a free-radical-producing herbicide actually lived longer than normal worms. What's more, when the longer-lived mutant worms were given antioxidants, the effects were reversed, and the worms had a conventional worm lifespan.

The finding flies in the face of the idea that antioxidants battle the effects of aging. According to study author Siegfried Hekimi of McGill University in Montreal and others, what is emerging from this and other experiments is a view of free radicals -- or, more precisely, reactive oxygen species -- as a normal part of the body's stress response, with beneficial effects at certain levels.

Hekimi and others point out that part of exercise's benefit may be because exercise causes mild increases in the levels of reactive oxygen species that are actually good for us. The emerging view casts a pall on the idea of popping antioxidant pills in hopes of slowing the aging process or protecting against disease.

Indeed, Chandel suspects that the beneficial effects of limited alcohol consumption come not from antioxidants in red wine but from the mild oxidative stress the alcohol provides.

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