For those who think that liver disease is solely alcohol-related; think again. One in 10 Americans is affected by liver disease. These numbers are on the rise. Liver disease ranges from hepatitis to biliary atresia to primary biliary cirrhosis to over 90 more forms of the disease. The American Liver Foundation New England Chapter (ALF) urges the residents of New England to become informed about liver disease and its many types.
Obesity – A danger to more than just your heart
According to the Center for Disease Control, 16 percent of children ages 6-19 years old are overweight or obese, a number that has tripled since 1980. In Massachusetts alone, Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 27 percent of the population is overweight.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of remaining overweight or becoming obese when they become adults.
All these statistics lead to a new potential health crisis; a rise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease that is directly linked to obesity.
Fatty liver is just what it sounds like – the build-up of excess fat in the liver cells. It is normal for a person’s liver to contain some fat; but if that fat accounts for more than 5-10% of the liver’s weight, then fatty liver is present and serious complications may develop. Excess fat in the liver often leads to the organ becoming inflamed.
This inflammation causes damage. An inflamed liver can become scarred and hardened over time. This hardening is better known as cirrhosis, and it is very serious and often leads to liver failure. Unfortunately, fatty liver produces little or no symptoms of its own. It can be inflamed for years, even decades, before it begins to cause symptoms.
In fact, people often learn they have the disease when they have medical tests for unrelated issues. Children, in particular, are not regularly screened for liver disease unless a family member asks directly for this test.
“In my own experience, several new children are identified each week with liver disease of varying severity associated with being overweight, pre-diabetic or currently diabetic, and with high serum cholesterol levels. Some of the children already have a lot of scarring in their livers, which is called cirrhosis,” explains Maureen Jonas, Associate in Gastroenterology (Hepatology), and Medical Director of the Liver Transplant Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.
So how is fatty liver disease treated? There are currently no medical or surgical treatments for the disease. Although doctors are currently studying how best to treat fatty liver, there are a number of steps that people with the disease can take to lower the level of fat in their liver.
These include losing weight, avoiding alcohol, eating a healthy diet, increasing physical activity, lowering triglycerides, and getting regular checkups from a doctor who specializes in liver care.
Liver Cancer — Scientists are alarmed at the rapidly rising rate of cases in the United States
According to ALF, the incidence of liver cancer is rising very quickly. Often there are no symptoms of liver cancer until the later stages. When symptoms do occur, they may include fatigue, pain on the right side of the upper abdomen or around the right shoulder blade, nausea, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss or jaundice. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately.
Liver cancer may also be discovered during a routine checkup if the doctor feels hard lumps in the abdomen, or incidentally by imaging studies. To confirm the diagnosis, doctors use blood tests, CT scans and an MRI.
When discovered early, liver cancers may be cured with treatment. Scientists are experimenting with several promising new drugs and therapies that could prolong the lives of people with liver cancer. In some cases, a liver transplant will effectively cure liver cancer as it is an option for a small percentage of patients.
Pediatric Liver Disease –Parents bear the burden when infants are treated
Approximately 15,000 children are hospitalized every year with pediatric liver disease or disorders. One of the most common diseases that affect young infants is biliary atresia. Between two and six weeks after birth, a child may appear jaundiced and may develop a large, hardened liver and swollen abdomen. Although the cause is unknown, biliary atresia affects one infant in every 15,000 live births.
The best treatment for biliary atresia is a surgical procedure called Kasai which allows drainage of bile from the liver when the ducts have become completely obstructed. If the Kasai procedure is unsuccessful, another surgical option is liver transplantation. Biliary atresia research focuses on trying to find the cause of this disease so that we may ultimately be able to treat it more successfully.
Joseph Hamilton of Ipswich, MA, will turn 2 years old in a few months. He was born with biliary atresia and received a liver transplantation at Children’s Hospital Boston in May, 2007. Despite a harrowing time of hospitals and illness for the Hamilton family, today their son is healthy, happy and reaching important developmental milestone.
Understanding that liver disease does not just happen to those with alcohol-related illnesses is critical in taking a step forward towards one’s own health and disease prevention. ALF encourages each person to talk to his or her doctor about liver
health and disease prevention, vaccinations and liver cancer screenings.
The best way to combat, and prevent, liver disease is to practice a healthy lifestyle, eat a balanced diet, exercise, avoid excessive alcohol, and monitor all medications. Research is another important key to understanding liver disease. The ALF Research Awards program has awarded over $20 million in grant money to liver disease researchers since its inception.