DALLAS, Texas — One in four adults may be living with an undiagnosed liver disorder that’s putting them at greater risk for heart disease, a new study warns.
Known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the condition develops as vast amounts of fat build up in the organ. The condition sometimes results in inflammation, scarring, and even organ failure.
Researchers with the American Heart Association (AHA) note that the prevalence of NAFLD could be even higher due to the challenges in its diagnosis. Unhealthy diets high in fat, which can lead to obesity, can fuel the condition.
“Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is a common condition that is often hidden or missed in routine medical care. It is important to know about the condition and treat it early because it is a risk factor for chronic liver damage and cardiovascular disease,” says chair of the statement writing committee Professor P. Barton Duell in a media release.
Growing waistlines are putting more people at risk
According to the CDC, over 42 percent of American adults qualify as obese. Up to one in three people may have early stage NAFLD, where there are small amounts of fat in their liver.
It increases the risk of serious liver damage, including cirrhosis. Lifestyle changes are the cornerstone of treatment. These include cutting down on processed foods such as burgers and sausages and eating more fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains. Previous studies also recommend switching to a Mediterranean-style diet and avoiding alcohol.
As people pile on the pounds, they are being diagnosed with the often-symptomless condition at a much younger age. Rather than being in their 60s or 70s, they are in still their 30s or 40s. Worryingly, many with NAFLD are only slightly overweight. The new statement emphasizes the need for awareness and monitoring and access to improved screening and treatment as doctors could miss it for years.
What’s the link to heart disease?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in patients with NAFLD. The illnesses share similar risk factors such as elevated glucose and blood fats and high blood pressure.
Maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, eating heart-healthy foods diet, and managing conditions such as type 2 diabetes protect against it.
“Although healthy living can help avert NAFLD in many individuals, some may develop NAFLD despite their best efforts,” Duell says. “At the other end of the spectrum, some individuals may have a genetic makeup that protects them from developing NAFLD despite having obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, unhealthy dietary habits or being sedentary.”
The U.S. team adds that a specialized ultrasound scan that measures liver elasticity, fat, and stiffness in the liver can detect NAFLD. Liver biopsy is the definitive test for advanced disease, but it’s an invasive and expensive procedure.
“The lack of awareness of the high prevalence of NAFLD contributes to underdiagnosis,” Duell adds. “Individuals with risk factors for NAFLD warrant more careful screening.”
How can people prevent fatty liver disease?
“Part of the good news about managing NAFLD is that healthy eating, regular exercise and weight loss or avoiding weight gain are all valuable interventions to improve health in most of us, regardless of whether we have NAFLD,” the study author continues.
Although it can kill, if doctors catch NAFLD early the condition can be held at bay by weight loss. Some blood pressure and diabetes drugs may also be helpful. Consultation with a dietitian may help patients plan and maintain a healthy diet. Losing 10 percent of your body weight has also been found to dramatically reduce liver fat buildup.
Evidence also supports 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day, even in the absence of weight loss.
The study is published in the AHA’s journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.