It has been hypothesized that some of the functional impairments associated with aging are the result of increasing oxidative damage to mitochondrial DNA that produces defects in oxidative phosphorylation. To test this hypothesis, we examined the enzymes that catalyze oxidative phosphorylation in crude mitochondrial preparations from frontoparietal cortex of 20 rhesus monkeys (5-34 years old). Samples were assayed for complex I, complex II-III, complex IV, complex V, and citrate synthase activities. When enzyme activities were corrected for citrate synthase activities (to account for variable degrees of mitochondrial enrichment), linear regression analysis demonstrated a significant negative correlation of the activities of complex I (p < 0.002) and complex IV (p < 0.03) with age but no significant change in complex II-III or complex V activities. Relative to animals 6.9 +/- 0.9 years old (n = 7), the citrate synthase-corrected activity of complex I was reduced by 17% in animals 22.5 +/- 0.9 years old (n = 6) (p < 0.05) and by 22% in animals 30.7 +/- 0.9 years old (n = 7) (p < 0.01). Similar age-related reductions in the activities of complexes I and IV were obtained when enzyme activities were corrected for complex II-III activity. These findings show an age-associated progressive impairment of mitochondrial complex I and complex IV activities in cerebral cortices of primates.