Mitochondrial function is an important determinant of the ageing process; however, the mitochondrial properties that enable longevity are not well understood. Here we show that optimal assembly of mitochondrial complex I predicts longevity in mice. Using an unbiased high-coverage high-confidence approach, we demonstrate that electron transport chain proteins, especially the matrix arm subunits of complex I, are decreased in young long-living mice, which is associated with improved complex I assembly, higher complex I-linked state 3 oxygen consumption rates and decreased superoxide production, whereas the opposite is seen in old mice. Disruption of complex I assembly reduces oxidative metabolism with concomitant increase in mitochondrial superoxide production. This is rescued by knockdown of the mitochondrial chaperone, prohibitin. Disrupted complex I assembly causes premature senescence in primary cells. We propose that lower abundance of free catalytic complex I components supports complex I assembly, efficacy of substrate utilization and minimal ROS production, enabling enhanced longevity.