Although there is evidence that the deformability of the entire red blood cell (RBC) decreases during aging, reports on changes in relevant specific properties associated with the aging process are limited and not in total agreement. The purpose of this study was to evaluate some of the factors that might contribute to this decreased deformability. Geometric, osmotic, and membrane mechanical properties of unfractionated, top (“young”) and bottom (“old”) RBC from 5 healthy adult donors were measured using micropipette techniques. Surface area, volume, and diameter of RBC were measured at osmolalities of 297, 254, 202, and 153 mosm/kg. Two membrane mechanical properties, surface shear modulus of elasticity (mu) and time constant (tc) of viscoelastic recovery, were studied only in isotonic media. At each of the osmolalities, volume and surface area of the bottom cells were about 25% lower than those of the top cells. Bottom cells showed smaller increases in volume with decreasing osmolality than top cells; the surface area remained constant with changing osmolality for all three groups. The surface area-to-volume ratio and the minimum cylindrical diameter of the bottom cells were essentially identical to the top cells. However, both the surface area index (actual are of RBC divided by area of a sphere of same volume) and the swelling index (maximal volume divided by actual volume) of the bottom cells were significantly lower than top RBC. The shear modules of elasticity (mu) was about 0.006 dyne/cm in all 3 RBC populations, indicating that the forces necessary to deform a portion of the membrane did not change with RBC aging. The viscoelastic time constant (tc) was 0.148 +/- 0.020 (SD) sec for the bottom RBC and 0.099 +/- 0.017 sec for the top cells. This difference indicates that shape recovery following membrane deformation is delayed in old RBC. The membrane surface viscosity (eta), calculated as the product of tc times mu was 0.95 +/- 0.22 x 10(-3) dyne-sec/cm for the bottom cells and 0.54 +/- 0.15 x 10(-3) for the top RBC. These data indicate that the relative deficit in membrane surface area and the increased membrane viscosity of old RBC may be important determinants for their decreased deformability and their eventual removal from the circulation.

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