Fatty liver disease is becoming the number one reason for liver transplants in the U. S.
Liver disease numbers are skyrocketing in the United States despite amazing gains in the ability to treat hepatitis C and other chronic liver conditions, and Hispanics are among those in the highest risk group when it comes to this medical condition.
The issue at hand is known as fatty liver disease, a disease that occurs when obesity and a lack of physical activity cause the liver to store excessive amounts of fat. Experts from the Mayo Clinic indicate fatty liver disease, also referred to as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, can cause serious liver inflammation and scarring, much in the same way as seen among people who do drink heavily. Like other liver disease diagnoses, fatty liver disease can result in liver failure.
Experts say it is becoming one of the main reasons people need liver transplants in the U.S. According to the latest data, 10 percent of children and 20 percent of adults have fatty liver disease. There are an estimated 5 million people living with the most advanced for of this condition, known as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, or NASH.
NASH-related liver transplants have climbed from 1 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2009, while the rates of alcoholic liver disease and hepatitis C remain stable. Experts say NASH will surpass hepatitis C as the main reason fo liver transplants by the year 2020 if no action is taken.
“This is the face of liver disease in the United States,” said Dr. Shahid M. Malik of the Center for Liver Diseases, as reported by the New York Times. “If you’re at any liver transplant center in the country, there’s no doubt that this is a big problem.”
Hispanics have long been known as a group considered high-risk for fatty liver disease, not only because they have higher numbers of obesity and tend to have unhealthier eating habits, but also because they often carry a variant of a gene, known as PNPLA3, that drives the liver to aggressively produce and store triglycerides, a type of fat. This genetic variant is twice as common among Hispanics compared to non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.
But some mystery still remains about the increase in fatty liver disease numbers. While the cases of fatty liver disease mirror those of obesity in adults, fatty liver disease is rapidly increasing among children faster than obesity numbers. This suggests something else is going on, explained Dr. Miriam Vos, the lead author of a study in The Journal of Pediatrics on this condition.
“We don’t know, but some of the research has shown there may be early exposures in pregnancy or diet exposures that could be helping to drive this,” she said.
SEE ALSO: Texas has the highest rates of Hispanics with liver cancer
What medical professionals do know is that obesity seems to drive the disease and cause it to progress despite the unknown factors that still surround the condition. Continual weight gain is the path to NASH, indicate experts, and at the moment there is no pill or medication that can treat someone diagnosed with fatty liver disease.
“A lot of times when I see a patient with fatty liver,” said Malik, “the first thing out of their mouth is, ‘Well, is there a pill for this?’ And there’s not. There just isn’t. You have to make lifestyle changes, and that’s a much more difficult pill for people to swallow.”
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