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Rise in Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Linked to Obesity

March 14, 2012

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is on the rise in the United States, according to the March issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter.

NAFLD causes excess fat to accumulate in the liver. As the fat builds, some patients experience fatigue, weight loss and pain in the upper right abdomen. A buildup of fat in the liver can result in inflammation and scarring (fibrosis). The more serious form of this illness can cause severe liver damage and eventually lead to liver failure or liver cancer in about 5 percent of those with the illness.

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In the early stages, NAFLD doesn't cause signs or symptoms. The disease is often discovered during routine blood tests that show that certain liver enzymes are elevated. Additional blood tests and imaging may confirm the diagnosis.

Researchers believe the increasing incidence of NAFLD is associated with rising rates of obesity. Experts estimate that about two-thirds of obese adults and half of obese children may have fatty livers.

There are no specific therapies for the disease. Instead, doctors focus on treating risk factors. Recommendations include:

Weight loss: Losing excess weight can improve and possibly even reverse fatty liver disease to some degree.

Healthy diet: Many people who have the disease also have increased levels of fat (lipids) in their blood, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. Doctors recommend a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains with limited amounts of cholesterol and saturated fats. Cutting out fast food may be particularly helpful as this food is associated with progressive inflammation and scarring in people with NAFLD.

Physical activity: A recent study of adults with NAFLD suggests that vigorous physical activity may help reduce damage from fatty liver disease.

Liver protection: People with the disease should avoid drinking alcohol and any unnecessary use of medication that can put the liver at risk. For example, high doses of acetaminophen, a pain reliever found in many prescription and over-the-counter drugs, can cause liver damage.

Mayo Clinic Health Letter is an eight-page monthly newsletter of reliable, accurate and practical information on today's health and medical news. To subscribe, please call 800-333-9037 (toll-free), extension 9771, or visit Mayo Clinic Health Letter Online.

Media Contact: Ginger Plumbo, 507-284-5005 (days), newsbureau@mayo.edu