1 in 4 People Have This Condition That Harms the Heart

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Doctor talking to a patient
Daniel M Ernst / Shutterstock.com

About 25% of adults may have a quiet health condition that can put their heart at risk, according to a recent scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA).

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) — an abnormal build-up of fat in the liver that can cause inflammation and scarring — impacts an estimated 1 in 4 people worldwide. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in those diagnosed with this condition.

Heart disease and NAFLD share many risk factors, including:

  • Metabolic syndrome (a condition involving high blood sugar and blood triglycerides, abdominal fat and high blood pressure)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Impaired glucose tolerance (prediabetes)
  • Obesity

Those with NAFLD are at higher risk of heart disease than others who share heart disease risk factors but do not have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, the AHA says.

The AHA is raising the alarm about NAFLD because it says doctors often fail to perform a routine medical screening for the condition.

The association acknowledges that because there are challenges in diagnosing NAFLD, the precise prevalence of NAFLD remains unknown. But regardless of how many people actually have the condition, it is a major threat, says Dr. P. Barton Duell of the AHA and the Oregon Health & Science University’s medical school.

He labels NAFLD “a common condition that is often hidden or missed in routine medical care.” Diagnosing and treating the condition early can help prevent chronic liver damage and heart disease.

Initially, NAFLD may not cause any symptoms, and blood tests may not show abnormalities. However, a specialized ultrasound that measures liver elasticity, fat and stiffness can reveal the presence of NAFLD. According to the AHA:

“This type of liver scan is a noninvasive way to help diagnose and monitor treatment in NAFLD and [associated inflammation and scarring], yet it is underused. Liver biopsy is the definitive test for the diagnosis of more advanced stages of NAFLD, however, it is invasive and expensive.”

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of developing NAFLD. They include:

  • Keeping a healthy body weight
  • Exercising on a regular basis
  • Consuming heart-healthy foods
  • Managing health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and elevated triglycerides

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