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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A whole-body mathematical model of cholesterol metabolism and its age-associated dysregulation

Mark T Mc Auley1*, Darren J Wilkinson2, Janette JL Jones3 and Thomas BL Kirkwood1

Author affiliations

1 Campus for Ageing and Vitality, Newcastle University, Henry Wellcome Biogerontology Building, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE4 5PL, United Kingdom

2 School of Mathematics & Statistics, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK

3 Unilever R&D, Port Sunlight, Quarry Road East, Bebington, Wirral, CH63 3JW, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Systems Biology 2012, 6:130  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-6-130

Published: 10 October 2012

Abstract

Background

Global demographic changes have stimulated marked interest in the process of aging. There has been, and will continue to be, an unrelenting rise in the number of the oldest old ( >85 years of age). Together with an ageing population there comes an increase in the prevalence of age related disease. Of the diseases of ageing, cardiovascular disease (CVD) has by far the highest prevalence. It is regarded that a finely tuned lipid profile may help to prevent CVD as there is a long established relationship between alterations to lipid metabolism and CVD risk. In fact elevated plasma cholesterol, particularly Low Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol (LDL-C) has consistently stood out as a risk factor for having a cardiovascular event. Moreover it is widely acknowledged that LDL-C may rise with age in both sexes in a wide variety of groups. The aim of this work was to use a whole-body mathematical model to investigate why LDL-C rises with age, and to test the hypothesis that mechanistic changes to cholesterol absorption and LDL-C removal from the plasma are responsible for the rise. The whole-body mechanistic nature of the model differs from previous models of cholesterol metabolism which have either focused on intracellular cholesterol homeostasis or have concentrated on an isolated area of lipoprotein dynamics. The model integrates both current and previously published data relating to molecular biology, physiology, ageing and nutrition in an integrated fashion.

Results

The model was used to test the hypothesis that alterations to the rate of cholesterol absorption and changes to the rate of removal of LDL-C from the plasma are integral to understanding why LDL-C rises with age. The model demonstrates that increasing the rate of intestinal cholesterol absorption from 50% to 80% by age 65 years can result in an increase of LDL-C by as much as 34 mg/dL in a hypothetical male subject. The model also shows that decreasing the rate of hepatic clearance of LDL-C gradually to 50% by age 65 years can result in an increase of LDL-C by as much as 116 mg/dL.

Conclusions

Our model clearly demonstrates that of the two putative mechanisms that have been implicated in the dysregulation of cholesterol metabolism with age, alterations to the removal rate of plasma LDL-C has the most significant impact on cholesterol metabolism and small changes to the number of hepatic LDL receptors can result in a significant rise in LDL-C. This first whole-body systems based model of cholesterol balance could potentially be used as a tool to further improve our understanding of whole-body cholesterol metabolism and its dysregulation with age. Furthermore, given further fine tuning the model may help to investigate potential dietary and lifestyle regimes that have the potential to mitigate the effects aging has on cholesterol metabolism.