The connection between aging, mitochondria and COVID-19

It’s no secret that COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the body’s immune system — what’s been unclear is exactly how and why this happens.

For instance, some studies have shown depletion of virus-fighting T cells in people with severe COVID-19. On the other hand, some COVID-19 patients suffer from an overactive immune response, or so-called “cytokine storm,” that causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue and organs.

Other complicating factors are age and the prevalence of underlying medical conditions. Adults over 65 and people with chronic conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have been in the majority with severe cases and higher mortality.

Now, new findings may help explain how COVID-19 dominates the immune system, especially in older adults and people with diabetes or heart disease… and what you might do about it.

COVID-19 and your body’s mitochondria

Researchers from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology conducted a study that sought to more completely understand COVID-19’s suppression of the body’s immune response. Their research suggests mitochondria, the tiny “powerhouses” in each cell of the body, are one of the first lines of defense against COVID-19 and identifies important differences in how SARS-CoV-2 impacts mitochondria compared with other viruses.

The USC study expands on recent findings that COVID-19 tamps down the body’s innate inflammatory response, finding it does so by diverting mitochondria from their normal function. To get to the bottom of the immune system’s failure to defend against COVID-19, lead author Brendan Miller says the researchers looked at how the virus specifically targets mitochondria, a crucial part of the body’s innate immune system and energy production.

Looking at data from the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, the team performed an analysis that compared how the mitochondria functioned when facing SARS-CoV-2, versus other viruses. They were able to identify three ways in which COVID-19, but not the other viruses, mutes the mitochondrial protective response…

  • Most importantly, they found that SARS-CoV-2 reduces mitochondrial proteins. This effect may lower the cell’s metabolic output and reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation that would normally produce a virus-killing inflammatory response. With that action sabotaged, the virus spreads.
  • Another finding is that SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t illicit the “messenger warning” which informs cells a viral attack has happened, giving the cell time to self-destruct so the virus cannot replicate. The other viruses used in the analysis were not able to block this warning system as the coronavirus did.
  • In addition, the researchers found certain mitochondria-encoded genes were not being turned on or off by SARS-CoV-2 at rates to be expected when confronted with a virus. This process is believed to produce energy that can help the cell evade a virus.

According to USC Leonard Davis School Dean Dr. Pinchas Cohen, senior author of the study, these differences could explain why older adults and people with metabolic disfunction, who in both cases are more likely to experience mitochondrial dysfunction, have more severe responses to COVID-19. They could also provide a starting point for more targeted approaches that could help identify therapeutics.

“If you already have mitochondrial and metabolic dysfunction, then you may, as a result, have a poor first line of defense against COVID-19,” Dr. Cohen says. “Future work should consider mitochondrial biology as a primary intervention target for SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses.”

Protecting and strengthening your mitochondria

It’s not yet clear whether it’s possible to change the mitochondria’s response to COVID-19. But one thing is certain: it couldn’t hurt to give your body as much ammunition as possible to fight the virus.

One way to do that is by strengthening and protecting your body’s “powerhouses.” As we’ve observed in previous issues, Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and Pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) have both shown the ability to fortify your mitochondria.

This is important because mature adults and those with chronic disease share more than a dangerous connection to COVID-19. They share a decline in the quality and activity of their mitochondria — which has been associated with aging. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction happens gradually to all of us as we age.

CoQ10 can be found in foods such as beef, herring, mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout, broccoli, peanuts, sesame seeds and oil and soybeans. However, if you’re an older adult it may be tough to get enough of this nutrient from diet alone. Research shows our body’s production of CoQ10 starts to diminish after age 20 and has dropped by 65 percent by the time we reach 80.

You can take CoQ10 supplements to help make up the shortfall, but make sure the supplement you choose is of high quality. Also, getting enough healthy fats will help ensure sufficient absorption of CoQ10 into the bloodstream.

As is the case with CoQ10, you can get PQQ through diet. Some foods containing PQQ include fermented soybeans, tofu, celery, green pepper, kiwi, fava beans and orange foods like carrots, papaya, sweet potato and oranges. But if you want to make sure you’re getting enough PQQ, supplementation is likely the best route.

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New findings help explain how COVID-19 overpowers the immune system — USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

How the Coronavirus Short-Circuits the Immune System — The New York Times

Why people with diabetes are being hit so hard by Covid-19 — STAT

COVID-19 Patients With Cardiovascular Disease Have In-hospital Mortality Rates of 25 to 38 Percent — Diagnostic and Interventional Cardiology

COVID-19: Older Adults — U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

3 Reasons You Should Be Taking Coq10 Right Now — Easy Health Options

Special Antioxidant Food Abolishes Fatty Liver Disease — Easy Health Options

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.