A buildup of fat in the liver causes a condition known as fatty liver disease, which has two subtypes: alcoholic fatty liver disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD affects about 25% of the world, and is now the most common chronic liver disorder in the US; it’s also split into two further subtypes: simple fatty liver, and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Researchers haven’t yet pinpointed the exact causes behind NAFLD, but they have discovered some risk factors that could increase your likelihood of developing the condition. They include but are not limited to: type 2 diabetes, obesity, prediabetes, rapid weight loss, hepatitis C and other infections, and previous exposure to certain toxins. Could there be a genetic risk factor as well?
A study published in June 2017, according to Reuters, said that an individual is 12 times more likely to develop liver scarring (or cirrhosis) if they have a sibling or parent that has cirrhosis due to NAFLD. In the past, research has shown that NAFLD can indeed run in families, but it wasn’t previously shown whether family members are also at a higher risk of developing fibrosis and other, more serious liver conditions.
Lead author Rohit Loomba from UC San Diego La Jolla’s NAFLD Research Center enrolled 26 patients who had both NAFLD and cirrhosis for this study. The team also enrolled 39 of these subjects’ siblings or parents, as well as 69 individuals without liver disease along with 69 of that population’s first-degree relatives.
They recorded the subjects’ medical histories, then performed medical exams and evaluated the participants’ livers using MRI scans. About 75% of the relatives of the subjects who had NAFLD with cirrhosis had NAFLD as well.
A major reason why it’s difficult to assess whether relatives of those with NAFLD are also at risk is because of fibrosis in particular is because diagnosing the condition requires a painful biopsy. However, Loomba et al have put together a protocol to identify fat as well as scarring in the liver on MRI images.
“My goal is to change practice to develop screening guidelines for who are the patients who are at high risk for developing cirrhosis and should we be screening them,” Loomba said.
There are currently no treatments for NAFLD aside from lifestyle changes. A February 2019 study said that adopting the keto diet in particular may not only help alleviate NAFLD, but also reduce fibrosis in patients who also have type 2 diabetes.
The Ezra abdominal, torso, and full-body scans may identify fatty liver disease as well as fibrosis. If you’d like to learn more about our screening plans, you may do so at this link.