When Should I Worry About...

5 Reasons to Know Your Risk for Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

March 8, 2021

You probably don't hear about nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) too often, or maybe you've never heard of it at all. But NAFLD strikes without warning or obvious symptoms — and can lead to serious consequences.

Affecting nearly 100 million Americans, NAFLD causes too much fat to be stored in the liver in people who drink little or no alcohol.

Risk factors and symptoms of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

"While the exact cause of NAFLD is difficult to pinpoint, knowing your risk is vital," says Dr. Rashid Khan, gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist. "The condition may be diagnosed in people of all ages, but it's especially prevalent in people in their 40s and 50s who are also at high risk of heart disease — due to the presence of risk factors such as obesity and type 2 diabetes."

The condition also is linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of abnormalities, including:

  • Increased abdominal fat
  • Poor ability to use the hormone insulin
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood levels of triglycerides

Other symptoms of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease may include:

  • Enlarged liver
  • Fatigue
  • Upper right abdominal pain

Why you should take nonalcoholic fatty liver disease seriously

If you have one or more of these risk factors, Dr. Khan has five reasons you should take your NAFLD risk seriously.

1. NAFLD can transform into liver cirrhosis

Cirrhosis is irreversible scarring of the liver, which, over time, can lead to serious liver dysfunction.

"Fatty liver disease is fairly easy to manage, but its development into cirrhosis becomes a game-changer," Dr. Khan says.

2. Studies indicate liver cancer can occur in people with NAFLD, even if they don't have cirrhosis

About a quarter of the time, NAFLD develops into nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) — which, in turn, can lead to liver cancer.

3. Heart disease goes hand-in-hand with NAFLD

"Both heart disease and NAFLD exist together in many patients," Dr. Khan says. "In fact, fatty liver is known to be an independent predictor of heart disease."

4. Research shows people with diabetes can eventually develop NAFLD

"This association is bidirectional, in that some patients with fatty liver will develop diabetes," Dr. Khan says.

5. NAFLD is linked to chronic kidney disease

While this link is not as strong as the ones between NAFLD and heart disease or diabetes, the risk still remains. NAFLD may be tied to metabolic syndrome, which involves plaque buildup in blood vessels throughout the body.

How to reduce your risk of developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

Dr. Kahn recommends reducing your risk by:

  • Choosing a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting regular exercise

"Because symptoms may not be present or obvious, regular screenings, including blood and liver enzyme and function tests, may help detect NAFLD early," Dr. Kahn says.

Categories: When Should I Worry About...
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