Just in case we don’t have enough public health crises threatening to push national healthcare systems to their breaking points, here’s another chronic, non-communicable epidemic to obsess about: fatty liver disease (FLD). The specter of FLD unrelated to alcoholism (historically the main cause of the life-threatening disorder) is growing fast across the developed world, warns Philip Newsome in The Telegraph. And like diabetes and heart disease it won’t be easy to address, due to numerous complicating factors relating to lifestyle, diet, and the like.
- The main cause of non-alcoholic FLD is, you guessed it, obesity, which continues to rise, increasing from 34.9% of the U.S. adult population in 2011-2012 to 39.6% in 2015-2016, according to the CDC. In the UK the proportion of obese adults in the English population almost doubled from 15% in 1993 to 29% in 2016, according to statistics cited in parliamentary reports.
- Similar to FLD related to alcoholism or diabetes, non-alcoholic FLD causes liver damage over time, with the number of healthy liver cells declining as they are replaced by fat and scar tissue. Eventually the damage becomes irreversible, leading to cirrhosis of the liver. Symptoms at this stage include jaundice, abdominal swelling from retained liquid, bleeding in the throat and confusion.
- The only treatment at this stage is a liver transplant, which requires lifelong immunosuppression, and is also of course extremely expensive for health insurance or national healthcare payers.
- Non-alcoholic FLD already accounts for around one in seven liver transplants in the UK, and it is the most common cause for liver transplants in the U.S.
- Far better and less costly would be a preventive strategy, based principally on healthier diets and avoidance of sedentary lifestyles. That’s the same basic preventive strategy for diabetes and heart disease, so that’s a three for one!