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Study finds fatty liver disease doesn’t increase mortality

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Study finds non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is not linked to higher mortality.

In an investigation finding that researchers call ‘surprising’, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NALFD) doesn’t seem to increase the risk of dying.

The condition occurs when fat accumulates in the liver, and is worrisome because fatty liver is linked to metabolic syndrome.

According to Johns Hopkins researchers who performed the study, it may be that fat in the liver protects people rather than contributing to diabetes and heart disease as has been presumed.

"Physicians have considered fatty liver disease a really worrisome risk factor for cardiovascular disease," says study leader Mariana Lazo, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research.

Our data analysis shows this doesn't appear to be the case. We were surprised to say the least because we expected to learn by how much non-alcoholic fatty liver disease increased the risk of death and instead found the answer was not at all."

The researchers looked at data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) which included 11,371 Americans, between 1994 and 1998, finding no increased risk of death from fatty liver disease.

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Twenty percent of people in the study had more than 5 percent liver fat, which is considered NAFLD.

At the end of the follow-up period, overall mortality was 22 percent, or 1,836 individuals. Heart disease was the cause of death for 716 participants, cancer for 480 and liver disease for 44.

The liver is important for filtering toxins from the body. It also manufactures vital proteins, and facilitates the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates.

Fatty liver disease that is not linked to drinking alcohol, is widespread, affecting one in 3 Americans.

Lazo says, "We don't yet know why mortality is not affected or whether there might be some actual protective effect of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but it looks like the liver's ability to accumulate fat may somehow shield the body from the detrimental effects of other health problems such as obesity and diabetes.”

Because most people with NAFLD are obese, have high cholesterol and heart disease, the result of the study was somewhat of a revelation. Fatty liver disease can cause scarring and progress to cirrhosis. The severity is usually determined by biopsy.

More research is needed to find the health effects of advanced NAFLD. The current study, publish in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed non-alcoholic fatty liver doesn’t increase the risk of dying.

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