It's not enough that we simply have to worry about the fat that's increasingly growing around our bellies.
Americans should also be concerned about the fat that they can't see: the stuff that's filling up their livers, more commonly known as Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
What used to be a minor issue has exploded into the most common cause of chronic liver disease worldwide, and it's estimated that up to 30 percent of Americans have it, said Dr. Kathleen Corey, hepatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the hospital's Fatty Liver Clinic. And the percentage of patients suffering from diabetes and obesity who have Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease is a whopping 60 to 90 percent.
The bad news is that the majority of people who have it have no idea of the problem that's growing in their bodies. The good news is that it's preventable.
What: Nonacloholic Fatty Liver Disease occurs when fat accumulates in liver cells. It's the most common cause of chronic liver disease worldwide, and it's estimated that up to 30 percent of Americans have it.
Why: The occurrence of fatty liver disease is closely tied to the surge in obesity in the US. When you gain weight, fat droplets are also deposited into your liver. Just having the fat in your liver alone doesn't tend to cause damage, but it can lead to other serious diseases.
Who: About 40 percent of obese people have some fat deposited in their liver. About 20 percent of those will develop Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver. Among those, 30 percent can develop cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver and poor liver function that can necessitate a liver transplant. About 3 to 25 percent of those will develop liver cancer.
Causes: While several genes have been identified as associated with fatty liver — and may place patients at increased risk for the development of fatty liver — the primary reason why people get Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease is due to their weight. There are also certain medications, such as Tamoxifen, corticosteroids and Methotrexate, which can cause it.
Where: In your liver, which is in the upper right part of your abdomen. But don't expect to touch the area and feel pain if you have the disease. Most of the time, fatty liver has no symptoms and is diagnosed incidentally when you have imaging studies done, such as an ultrasound or CT scan for other reasons. Some people do complain of right upper-quadrant abdominal pain and fatigue, but it's not common.
When: It can happen at any time, and it can be prevented in many cases. Getting rid of the fat build-up by dieting and exercising is the only real treatment for weight-related Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. A study in the journal Hepatology found that those who lost 5 percent of their body weight had less fat accumulation in their liver. Those who lost at least 9 percent of their body weight reversed existing liver damage. If you have the disease resulting from taking a medication, then stopping the medication should stop the damage.
Experts: Dr. Kathleen Corey, hepatologist at MGH and director of the MGH Fatty Liver Clinic; Dr. Neville Bamji, gastroenterologist at The Mount Sinai hospital in New York, Dr. Ronald Sokol, pediatric gastroenterologist at Children's Hospital Colorado, Dr. Jorge Marrero, medical director of the Multidisciplinary Liver Tumor Clinic at the University of Michigan Health System
30% Percentage of Americans who have Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
What is a fatty liver?
Caused in most cases by excess weight, this condition can lead to impairment of the organ's function and even a transplant
Male liver (Ingram Publishing / April 18, 2012)