What You Need to Know About Fatty Liver Disease

Learn more about the silent condition affecting up to one-third of Americans.

Medically reviewed in July 2022

You may not be familiar with its name, but fatty liver disease, a condition that can lead to liver failure and other serious complications, is silently affecting up to one in three U.S adults. And that number continues to climb.

Here’s what you need to know about the disease, and how to keep your liver healthy. 

What is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?
NAFLD is the name given to a group of conditions that causes excess fat to build up in liver cells. NAFLD is similar to alcoholic liver disease, but occurs in people who don’t drink or over-consume alcohol.

Experts think NAFLD on its own doesn’t harm the liver much. But NAFLD can progress to a more severe condition called NASH, or non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, which can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis. NASH most commonly affects people ages 40 to 60.

What causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease?
Experts still can’t say for sure what causes NAFLD, but it’s been closely linked to weight gain and obesity, and medical conditions such as insulin resistance and diabetes. 

It’s also not clear what causes NAFLD to turn into NASH.

What are the symptoms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease?
NAFLD is usually a silent condition, which means people generally have no symptoms, and only discover they have it through blood tests that reveal elevated liver enzyme levels.

When symptoms do appear, they can include fatigue, abdominal pain (especially over the upper-right part of the abdomen), nausea, weight loss, jaundice, itching, leg swelling, loss of appetite and mental confusion.

Who’s at risk?
People most at risk for NAFLD are those who are overweight or obese, people living with diabetes, insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome and people who have high cholesterol or triglyceride levels. According to the American Liver Foundation, rapid weight loss and unhealthy eating habits can also contribute to NAFLD.

Some people who develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have no risk factors at all, and while it primarily affects adults, doctors are seeing more children diagnosed with the condition.

How is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease treated?
There’s no specific treatment for NAFLD, but eating well, controlling your cholesterol and triglyceride levels and exercising regularly to keep your weight in check could help in reversing or preventing it. 

It’s also important to keep your diabetes under control if you have it, and steer clear of alcohol or any unnecessary medications.

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