Liver Disease Likelihood Increases With Age

Although the liver does not typically undergo common degenerative diseases like those related to other body systems such as the circulatory and skeletal systems, it does undergo some age-related changes that may increase older adults’ vulnerability to liver disease. In the United States, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is one of the most common causes of liver disease. NAFLD is a condition in which excess fat is stored in the liver; however, this increase in fat cells is not caused by alcohol abuse. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, between 30% and 40% of American adults have NAFLD.

There are two separate and distinct types of NAFLD: simple fatty liver and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). It’s likely that a person would develop one condition or the other although it is possible that an individual with one form of liver disease to be later diagnosed with the other as well. The majority of people with NAFLD have simple fatty liver (NAFL). NAFL is characterized by fat in the liver in the absence of inflammation or liver cell damage. It typically does not progress to cause liver damage.

Mayo Clinic experts estimate the number of American adults who have NASH at between 3% and 12%. NASH, another form of NAFLD, is a potentially serious form of the disease and is characterized by inflammation of the liver and liver cell damage, as well as excess fat in the liver. It’s possible for NASH to lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.

NAFLD is more prevalent in people with metabolic syndrome, or a combination of conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, accumulation of body fat around the waist, and hypercholesterolemia. American College of Gastroenterology researchers have found NAFLD in 40% to 80% of people with type 2 diabetes and in 30% to 90% of people who are obese. Although NAFLD can affect people of any age, individuals are more likely to develop NAFLD as they age. With the greatest incidence among Hispanics, followed by non-Hispanic whites, NAFLD occurs in people of all races. NAFLD has been found to be less common in African Americans. According to information in the World Journal of Hepatology, research suggests that people with NAFLD have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

NAFLD typically creates no signs or symptoms. However, when is does, they could include fatigue and upper right abdomen pain. Symptoms of NASH and cirrhosis include abdominal swelling, enlarged blood vessels just below the skin’s surface, enlarged spleen, yellow skin and eyes, and red palms.

If you have any of the symptoms specific to NAFLD or NASH, be sure to share your concerns with your provider and follow up with appropriate diagnostic and treatment plans. Likewise, if you have conditions that comprise metabolic syndrome, it would be wise to discuss the potential for liver disease with your provider.

Currently there are no drugs approved for the treatment of NAFLD or NASH. The initial focus of NAFLD treatment is weight loss. A significant loss can help to reduce the fat in the liver, as well as inflammation and scarring. As an adjunct to weight loss, it’s important to adopt a healthy diet, make portion control a priority, and exercise regularly.

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