Aging is associated with a reduced ability to cope with physiological challenges. Although the mechanisms underlying age-related alterations in stress tolerance are not well defined, many studies support the validity of the oxidative stress hypothesis, which suggests that lowered functional capacity in aged organisms is the result of an increased generation of reactive oxygen and nitrogen species. Increased production of oxidants in vivo can cause damage to intracellular macromolecules, which can translate into oxidative injury, impaired function and cell death in vulnerable tissues such as the brain. To survive different types of injuries, brain cells have evolved networks of responses, which detect and control diverse forms of stress. This is accomplished by a complex network of the so-called longevity assurance processes, which are composed of several genes termed vitagenes. Among these, heat shock proteins form a highly conserved system responsible for the preservation and repair of the correct protein conformation. The heat shock response contributes to establishing a cytoprotective state in a wide variety of human diseases, including inflammation, cancer, aging and neurodegenerative disorders. Given the broad cytoprotective properties of the heat shock response, there is now a strong interest in discovering and developing pharmacological agents capable of inducing the heat shock response. Acetylcarnitine is proposed as a therapeutic agent for several neurodegenerative disorders, and there is now evidence that it may play a critical role as modulator of cellular stress response in health and disease states. In the present review, we first discuss the role of nutrition in carnitine metabolism, followed by a discussion of carnitine and acetyl-l-carnitine in mitochondrial dysfunction, in aging, and in age-related disorders. We then review the evidence for the role of acetylcarnitine in modulating redox-dependent mechanisms leading to up-regulation of vitagenes in brain, and we also discuss new approaches for investigating the mechanisms of lifetime survival and longevity.