- One in four adults may have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which raises the risk of heart disease, research suggests.
- NAFLD can go undiagnosed for years, but early diagnosis can save lives, experts said.
- Maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, and eating a heart-healthy diet can reduce risk.
An estimated one in four adults has an often missed condition that raises their risk of heart disease , according to new research by the American Heart Association.
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when the body deposits unusually high amounts of fat in the liver, potentially leading to scarring and inflammation, according to the statement published on April 14 in the peer-reviewed journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in people with NAFLD, and the conditions share many risk factors including type 2 diabetes , obesity, and metabolic syndrome (elevated blood sugar and blood triglycerides, increased abdominal fat and high blood pressure ).
NAFLD increases the likelihood of developing heart disease compared to people who have the risk factors without the liver condition.
NAFLD can go undiagnosed for years
NAFLD is common but often missed in routine medical care, according to P. Barton Duell, M.D., FAHA, chair of the statement writing committee.
“It is important to know about the condition and treat it early because it is a risk factor for chronic liver damage and cardiovascular disease,” he said.
NAFLD can go undiagnosed for years, and the AHA hopes to raise awareness and improve access to screening tools and treatments.
Fat deposits and liver dysfunction can also occur be caused by excessive alcohol consumption, but NAFLD is separate.
Healthy lifestyle changes can prevent or treat NAFLD
If diagnosed early enough, NAFLD can be treated with lifestyle changes.
Genetics can influence whether someone develops NAFLD, but a healthy lifestyle can help prevent it, according to the AHA. They recommend taking regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy body weight, as well as managing conditions like type 2 diabetes .
“Although healthy living can help avert NAFLD in many individuals, some may develop NAFLD despite their best efforts,” Duell said.
However, genetics could also prevent people from developing NAFLD despite having obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, unhealthy dietary habits, or being sedentary, he said.
Losing 10% of body weight dramatically reduced liver fat, and even 5% weight loss showed improvements, the statement said.
Even without weight loss, researchers recommend 20-30 minutes of daily exercise to decrease liver fat and improve insulin sensitivity.
Diet-wise, they recommend reducing consumption of fat and simple sugars, avoiding alcohol, and prioritizing fiber-rich vegetables and whole grains.