A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that the popular anti-diabetic drug metformin may slow aging and could even increase lifespan.

The findings represent a shift in beliefs about antioxidants, thought to neutralize the effects of highly reactive oxygen molecules produced by the mitochondria during cell-to-cell energy transfer.

Due to their potential to disrupt normal cell functioning as well as damage proteins and DNA, these molecules are thought to ignite the aging process.

The research shows that a small amount can be beneficial and that metformin, which allows just a small release of reactive oxygen molecules, could soon play a key role in healthy aging.

"As long as the amount of harmful oxygen molecules released in the cell remains small, it has a positive long-term effect on the cell. Cells use the reactive oxygen particles to their advantage before they can do any damage," explains Belgian doctoral researcher and study leader Wouter De Haes. "Metformin causes a slight increase in the number of harmful oxygen molecules. We found that this makes cells stronger and extends their healthy lifespan."

The study involved experiments on a short-lived species of roundworm called Caenorhabditis elegans, so the effects of the drug on humans are yet to be confirmed.

"As they age, the worms get smaller, wrinkle up and become less mobile. But worms treated with metformin show very limited size loss and no wrinkling. They not only age slower, but they also stay healthier longer," says Wouter De Haes. "While we should be careful not to over-extrapolate our findings to humans, the study is promising as a foundation for future research."

For a long time, the food and cosmetics industries have pumped their products full of antioxidants to claim an anti-aging component.

While the study does not dispute the anti-aging qualities of antioxidants it suggests that they could neutralize the effects of metformin.

A study published in the European Journal of Cancer, meanwhile, suggests that metformin could one day be used to treat and prevent cancer.