The “mitochondria” of elderly athletes are different

The high performance of some older athletes may be attributed to mitochondria. Image source: FATCAMERA/ISTOCK

Recently, a study published in eLife showed that muscle biopsies showed that cells in active elderly people produce more than 800 proteins at different levels compared to sedentary elderly people, many of which are associated with mitochondria.

Scientists have noticed that physical activity has some effect on mitochondria. For example, people who exercise for about 30 minutes a day secrete more protein than sedentary people that help power the mitochondria.

To figure out what role these proteins play in exercise-hungry older adults, Russell Hepple, a muscle biologist at the University of Florida, did some unusual field studies. The research team recruited 15 senior athletes all around the age of 80, half of whom competed in sprinting, half in endurance races, and some with the best results in the world in their events and age categories.

The researchers performed MRI images and a series of clinical tests on the volunteers to measure their balance, walking speed and oxygen consumption. They also performed a small biopsy of each participant’s lateral femoral muscles (extending to the outside of the thigh). At the same time, the researchers also compared the same test with 14 octogenarians who were not athletes.

Next, the researchers used liquid chromatography to extract proteins from muscle samples and use mass spectrometry methods to identify them. The results found that about 800 different amounts of protein were produced in the athletes compared to non-athletes. Nearly half are associated with mitochondria, involving functions such as cellular respiration and increasing the number of mitochondria within cells.

Some of these proteins have higher levels and some have lower levels. For example, athlete muscle cells produce fewer proteins associated with splicing somatic cell structures that help protect cells from the effects of aging. Luigi Ferrucci, a geriatrics expert at the National Institutes of Aging at the National Institutes of Health at the National Institutes of Health, believes that this is more powerful evidence that athletes’ cells do not age as well as other cells.

Most of the proteins the team found overlapped with those known to have a promoting effect in athletes of any age, of which 176 mitochondrial proteins were specific to these athletes in their 80s. The researchers say these people may have a lucky combination of genes, combined with high-intensity training, which may be the reason for their strong athletic ability in their later years.

Mark Tarnopolsky, a muscle biologist at McMaster University who was not involved in the study, said the study is a good example of how athletes can maintain mitochondrial health in old age.

With a list of these proteins, Ferrucci believes scientists can begin to study the functions of these proteins one by one by studying them in animal models. He hopes to one day use this knowledge to develop therapies to treat muscle decline.

“There is no real fountain of youth.” Hepple said, “But these athletes are the closest to the fountain of youth.” (Source: China Science Daily Xin Yu)

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