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Behind the headlines - fatty liver disease epidemic

Experts are warning that high levels of fatty liver disease among young people could signal a potential public health crisis.

Fatty liver disease is often associated with older people but a recent Guardian news article reveals that an increasing number of younger people are at risk of fatty liver disease.

What is the liver?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body after the skin and through its various roles, supports nearly every other organ in the body. The liver produces bile, a yellow-green fluid made up of water, bile salts, and several other substances including bilirubin, which aids the digestion of fat in the body. As well as aiding digestion, the liver has over 500 different roles in the body, including maintaining normal blood sugar concentration, removing toxins, storing essential vitamins and regulating the production of many important hormones.

What is fatty liver disease?

Alcohol, viruses, toxins and a poor diet can all damage the liver. Alcohol-related liver disease occurs when the liver becomes damaged after prolonged alcohol misuse which leads to cirrhosis which is scarring of the liver. Fatty tissue is still able to build up in the liver even when there is not a prolonged exposure to alcohol. A normal, healthy liver contains little, or no fat. High levels of fat in the liver of people who do not drink more than recommended guideline amounts of alcohol leads to the development of what is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD is recognised as one of the most common forms of liver disease worldwide and one that can progress to advanced liver damage.

The most common risk factor for developing NAFLD is being overweight and most people who have NAFLD are overweight or obese. However, not everyone who is overweight develops NAFLD and the relationship between body fat and NAFLD is not yet fully understood. There are many different risk factors for NAFLD development including:

  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Being aged over 50 years
  • Men have a greater risk of developing NAFLD compared to women
  • Having high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure
  • Sudden rapid weight loss can cause fat to build up in the liver due to the quick release of free fatty acids into the blood after the breakdown of fat

Behind the Headlines

Researchers from Bristol University tested more than 4,000 young people enrolled in a longitudinal study called the children of the 90s, set up to follow the lives and health of children born in 1991 and 1992 in Avon, England. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is fairly common among older adults, detectable in about a quarter of the population. But the study found that substantial numbers of 24-year-olds are also affected, putting them at risk of serious health problems later in life, such as liver cancer, type-2 diabetes and heart attacks.

The results of the study suggest that a greater public health awareness of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is needed in young adults in the UK. Many people believe that it is only alcohol that affects liver health but this isn’t true. At only 24 years of age, 1 in 5 involved in the study had steatosis (an increase in fatty deposits in the liver) and 1 in 40 had evidence of fibrosis (scar tissue that forms when the liver tries to repair itself). Without more people being aware of the risks of fatty liver disease such as an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease, over the next few years there could be an increase in severe advanced liver disease cases in the under 50s.

Junk food and liver disease

Can fatty liver disease be reversed?

Although many people with NAFLD won't develop any serious problems, if you're diagnosed with the condition it's a good idea to take steps to stop it getting any worse. Early stage NAFLD is reversible by making healthy lifestyle choices. For example, it can help to:

  • lose weight
  • eat a healthy diet – try to have a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates, but low in fat, sugar and salt
  • exercise regularly – aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking or cycling, a week
  • stop smoking
  • cut down on alcohol - NAFLD isn't caused by alcohol, but drinking may make it worse. It's therefore advisable to cut down or stop drinking alcohol

How do I know if I have NAFLD?

Fatty liver disease is also on the rise due to increasingly unhealthy lifestyles. Because there aren't usually any symptoms of NAFLD in the early stages, a blood test is the best way to help you to determine if your lifestyle is damaging your liver and to see if you should be making healthier lifestyle choices to improve your liver health. Our Liver Blood Testis a comprehensive examination of liver enzymes such as gamma GT (GGT) and alanine transferase (ALT) which can be elevated if the liver is inflamed or if the biliary system is obstructed.

Find out more about fatty liver disease here.