Around one-third of individuals may be developing a potentially fatal disease without even realizing it. This disease is known as Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which encompasses a range of conditions that occur due to an accumulation of fat in the liver. Although NAFLD is not caused by alcohol, excessive drinking can worsen the condition. NAFLD gained more attention in 2016 after it was listed as one of the causes of pop star George Michael’s death at the age of 53. When combined
with other liver ailments such as hepatitis or excessive alcohol consumption (above the recommended 14 units per week), it puts liver disease as the leading cause of death among adults in their 30s and 40s.
According to Pamela Healy, the chief executive officer of the British Liver Trust, many people are unaware that being overweight or obese can increase their risk of developing NAFLD. She also noted that while people tend to recognize the importance of keeping their hearts healthy, they often overlook the significance of maintaining liver health. There are also several misconceptions and myths surrounding liver health that further complicate the issue.
Early detection and prevention are crucial when it comes to NAFLD. Maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and limiting alcohol consumption can all help prevent the disease from developing or worsening. It’s also important for individuals to educate themselves about the risk factors and symptoms of NAFLD, and to speak with their healthcare provider if they have any concerns. By taking proactive steps to maintain liver health, individuals can reduce their risk of developing this silent but deadly disease.
It is a common misconception that only heavy drinkers can develop liver disease. In reality, around one in five people consume alcohol at levels that can put their liver at risk, and many are not aware that being overweight is also a significant risk factor. Despite this, liver disease is mostly preventable as the liver is a highly resilient organ that is capable of regeneration.
However, carrying even a small amount of excess weight can increase the risk of developing liver disease. A healthy liver should contain minimal or no fat, but poor dietary choices and extra weight can lead to up to one in three people in the UK having early-stage Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). This means that there are already small amounts of fat in their liver, which may not be causing problems yet but can increase the risk of high blood pressure, kidney problems, and diabetes as the fat levels rise.
Initially, the buildup of fat in the liver does not produce any symptoms, but if left unchecked, it can progress to a more severe condition called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), where the liver becomes inflamed. Over time, this inflammation can lead to scarring of both the liver and blood vessels. Despite this, the individual may still be unaware of any issues since the liver can continue to function normally.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
According to the NHS, some individuals may experience symptoms such as dull or aching pain in the upper right part of the abdomen (over the lower right side of the ribs), extreme fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and weakness. However, symptoms typically become apparent much later on, once cirrhosis sets in due to years of inflammation causing the liver to become lumpy and decrease in size. At this stage, symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes, itchy skin, and swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen. Unfortunately, the damage is often irreversible, and the likelihood of liver failure and liver cancer increases significantly. Professor Jonathan Fallowfield, the head of liver research at the University of Edinburgh, predicts that the five percent of people who develop NASH is projected to increase to seven percent by 2030.