Liver Disease

Rapid Rise in Obesity-Linked Liver Disease Among Americans

A recent study has revealed an alarming trend – fatty liver disease is increasing among Americans, surpassing obesity rates in various racial groups and impacting the liver health of millions. The research shows that metabolic dysfunction-associated fatty liver disease (MAFLD) has increased by 131% over the past three decades, going from 16% in 1988 to 37% in 2018.

In comparison, obesity has only seen a 74% increase during the same period, affecting 40% of Americans by 2018. These findings were presented at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in Chicago, painting a concerning picture of the state of liver health in the United States.

According to Dr. Theodore Friedman, chair of internal medicine at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science, “this is an important condition that seems to be getting worse over time. The rate has increased more than the rate of obesity in the United States.”

While many individuals can live with fatty liver disease, some may progress to more severe complications, such as liver dysfunction, cirrhosis, or even liver cancer. Although the need for a liver transplant due to fatty liver disease is relatively rare – less than 1% – there are still several thousand people who may require this life-saving procedure, given the approximately 100 million of people affected by this condition.

Duke Health endocrinologist Dr. Anastasia-Stefania Alexopoulos added, “[fatty liver disease] has now become the leading cause of liver transplant in women. It’s surpassed hepatitis C, and I’m sure in the near future it will also be the same case as men.” Dr. Alexopoulos further explained that risk factors such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome render individuals more vulnerable to developing fatty liver disease.

This study analyzed federal survey data from 1988 to 2018 and found that fatty liver disease has seen a significant increase over the years. Among all ethnic groups, white Americans experienced the highest rise of 133%, impacting around 35% of the population. Comparatively, the obesity rate for white Americans only increased by 77%

Among various ethnic groups, Mexican-Americans have the highest occurrence of fatty liver disease, affecting 58% of individuals in 2018. This marked a 61% increase over the three decades – slightly higher than 58% rise in obesity prevalence.

According to Dr. Alexopoulos, “it’s across all races, all ethnicities, and even in Black individuals who traditionally have been thought to have much lower prevalence of MAFLD, it’s still increasing in that group as well.”

Dr. Friedman also noted that the rising obesity rate is not only a significant health concern on its own but also a contributing factor to the spread of fatty liver disease. However, there may also be something more to this disorder than meets the eye.

He believes that American lifestyles are largely to blame for the increasing cases of fatty liver disease. “People are just eating worse foods and not exercising, and it’s affecting their lives as well as their overall health,” Dr. Friedman added.

Although simple blood tests performed during annual checkups can detect fatty liver disease, these tests unfortunately are not being done regularly or the results are not being shared with patients. This lack of awareness is a major concern, as many individuals with fatty liver disease are unaware of their condition.

However, there is some good news. Fatty liver disease has the potential to be reversed, thanks to the liver’s remarkable ability to heal itself. Even cirrhosis, liver scarring, can be reversed if detected early and drastic measures are taken. The key to reversing fatty liver disease lies in adopting a healthier diet, engaging in regular exercise, and weight loss.

Losing just 5% of body weight can already make a significant impact on reducing fat in the liver, while a 7% to 10% weight loss can even reverse scarring. While weight-loss medication can provide assistance, but the real power lies in making lifestyle changes.

It is important to note that while these findings are promising, further research is needed for validation.

People must seize control of their liver health and take action today to prevent or reverse the detrimental effects of fatty liver disease.