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A Silent Epidemic: 25% of Americans Have Fatty Liver Disease

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health

Fatty liver disease graphic

You don’t have to drink too much alcohol to acquire the most common chronic liver disorder in the U.S.

In fact, you don’t have to drink any alcohol at all to develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Experts estimate about 25 percent of all adults have the disease, which occurs when abnormal amounts of fat build up in the liver.

(For more about alcoholic fatty liver disease, which is caused by heavy alcohol use, visit here, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases [NIDDK].)

What concerns gastroenterologist Ashwani Sethi, M.D., is that most people don’t even know they have NAFLD.

“Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is often missed during routine medical screenings,” says Dr. Sethi, who holds board certifications in gastroenterology and internal medicine and practices with Lee Physician Group.

“It’s known as a silent liver disease because it can happen without causing symptoms (asymptomatic),” he says. “It’s often found in patients during a routine screening for asymptomatic elevated liver enzymes or on abdominal imaging.”

NAFLD is a rapidly growing cause of cirrhosis of the liver, especially when combined with alcohol. Dr. Sethi recommends Hepatitis A and B vaccinations in these people with NAFLD if they have not had them.

“For all these reasons, it’s important to be aware of NAFLD so you can get screened for it by your healthcare provider,” he advises.

What are the health risks of NAFLD?

People with NAFLD may develop liver complications or other health problems, Dr. Sethi notes. He adds that people with NAFLD also have a higher risk for certain health problems, including cardiovascular disease—the most common cause of death in people who have the disease.

“NAFLD is more common in people with certain diseases and conditions, especially people who are overweight or obese and who have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes,” he says.

About 75 percent of people who are overweight and more than 90 percent of people with severe obesity may have NAFLD, reports the NIDDK.

What are the symptoms?

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease often has no symptoms, which makes it a sneaky, but lethal disease. If symptoms become obvious, they may include fatigue, weight loss, and discomfort in the upper right side of your abdomen. For a complete list of symptoms, visit the American Liver Foundation.

Can I prevent NAFLD?

Dr. Sethi calls NAFLD a “lifestyle-driven disease,” meaning the best way to help reduce your risk of developing NAFLD or to treat it involves modifying your lifestyle—starting with weight loss.

“Weight loss is probably the most recommended approach for reducing fat, inflammation, and fibrosis—or scarring—in the liver,” Dr. Sethi notes. “Losing at least 3 percent to 5 percent of your body weight can reduce fat in the liver. To reduce liver inflammation and fibrosis, you may need to lose 7 percent to 10 percent of your body weight, some studies suggest.”

(Need help losing weight? Try a Lee Health board-certified obesity management doctor.)

Dr. Sethi adds you can also reduce your risk or prevent NAFLD by staying physically active, eating a healthy diet, limiting meal portions and alcohol intake, and keeping a healthy weight.

Nutritionally, an eating plan like the Mediterranean Diet—which is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains—is excellent for reducing liver fat and inflammation, Dr. Sethi says.

(A Mediterranean style of eating benefits the heart, too. Learn more from Lee Health’s cardiac care partner, Cleveland Clinic.)

Lee Physician Group Gastroenterology serves Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres, Estero, and Bonita Springs. Call for a consultation or an appointment today at 239-343-6202 or 239-468-0144 (LPG Gastroenterology - Coconut Point).

Lee Community Healthcare Gastroenterology Services

For uninsured and economically distressed residents in our community, Lee Community Healthcare clinics provide care. We provide access to specialty care at reduced rates as well as help with barriers to care. Learn more about these services here.