Much mystery surrounds the physiological processes by which humans age, but scientists are learning more all the time. With this knowledge come new possibilities around how we can not only slow them down, but possibly even reverse them. A new breakthrough at the University of Colorado is the latest advance in the area, demonstrating how a chemically altered nutritional supplement may well reverse aging of the blood vessels, in turn giving cardiovascular health a vital boost.


The human body is pretty good at fending off oxidative stress when we're young, protecting molecules from critical damage caused by rogue molecules known as free radicals. These are molecules that have found themselves with at least one unpaired electron, so they set off in search of a match, often robbing another molecule of theirs and setting off a chain reaction of irreversible molecular damage.


Antioxidants are handy because they intervene and palm off an electron to the free radical, nipping this process in the bud. These are naturally produced in sufficient numbers in our youth, but as we grow older and free radicals become more prevalent, the antioxidants find themselves overwhelmed. When it comes to our blood vessels, this renders them stiffer and less able dilate in response to heightened blood flow as the free radicals cause damage to their lining, which is known as the endothelium.


This is one of the reasons nutrition experts place such a big emphasis on incorporating good sources of antioxidants into our diets, but some are more effective than others. While foods with naturally occurring antioxidants are a good source, recent research has shown those offered by oral supplements like vitamin C or vitamin E to be ineffective, or possibly even harmful.


The new discovery at University of Colorado runs counter to this. The study centers on the commercially available supplement MitoQ, which is created by chemically altering a naturally-occurring antioxidant called Coenzyme Q10 to make it bind with mitochondria inside cells. This is the first time scientists have examined how an antioxidant that targets mitochondria can impact vascular health.


The team did this by giving 20 mg of MitoQ a day to half of a group of 20 healthy men and woman aged 60 to 79. The other half were given a placebo. They then observed how well the endothelium functioned over a period of six weeks by tracking how the arteries dilated in response to increased blood flow.


A two-week break followed to allow the body to wash away any residuals, and then the groups swapped places, with the original placebo group administered the supplement instead. The researchers found that on average, the supplement improved dilation of the subjects' arteries by 42 percent.


Going by that one indicator, the researchers say this equates to the performance of blood vessels in someone 15 to 20 years younger. If found to have this effect over the long term, this kind of improvement in cardiovascular health would be associated with a reduction in heart disease of around 13 percent.


The researchers say that the study showed the improved dilation to be a result of reduced oxidative stress, and that participants with stiffer arteries experienced reduced stiffness when taking the supplement. They will carry out a follow-up study in the coming months to consolidate their findings, verify them with a larger group of subjects and improve their understanding of how the compound interacts with mitochondria.


"Exercise and eating a healthy diet are the most well-established approaches for maintaining cardiovascular health," senior author Doug Seals, professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado. "But the reality is, at the public health level, not enough people are willing to do that. We're looking for complementary, evidence-based options to prevent the age-related changes that drive disease. These supplements may be among them."

Matthew J. Rossman, Jessica R. Santos-Parker, Chelsea A.C. Steward, Nina Z. Bispham, Lauren M. Cuevas, Hannah L. Rosenberg, Kayla A. Woodward, Michel Chonchol, Rachel A. Gioscia-Ryan, Michael P. Murphy, Douglas R. Seals