Posted on Jun 16, 2023, 6 p.m.
Metabolic-associated fatty liver disease (MAFLD) used to be known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and this disorder primarily results from excessive consumption of unhealthy meals such as the typical Western diet that is rich in processed foods, junk food, fast foods, and sugary drinks. This condition can cause inflammation, scarring and in extreme cases it can even lead to life-threatening organ failure.
In America over the past 30 years cases of MAFLD have more than doubled, recent research has revealed that more than 1 in 3 adults are now living with this severe liver disorder that could lead to fatal complications. MAFLD is referred to as a silent killer as it often goes undiagnosed due to subtle symptoms that can lead to serious problems like liver cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
“The percent of people with MAFLD increased from 16% in 1988 to 37% in 2018 (a 131% increase) while the percent of obesity rose from 23% in 1988 to 40% in 2018 (a 74% increase),” says the study’s first author Magda Shaheen, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., M.S., of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science.
Not surprisingly the increasing rates of MAFLD are closely linked to the obesity epidemic that is spreading worldwide, and currently, The American Liver Foundation estimates that approximately 100 million Americans may have the condition. MAFLD is becoming the most common reason for requiring a liver transplant at a record pace.
As people are gaining weight they are being diagnosed with this most often symptomless disorder at younger ages. Typically one might be diagnosed in the 60s or 70s, but now it is happening in their 30s and 40s, and alarmingly many of these people are only slightly overweight. For diagnosis, a specialized ultrasound scan measures liver elasticity, fat, and stiffness, and a liver biopsy is the definitive diagnostic test for advanced stages which is both invasive and costly.
In those with MAFLD heart disease is the primary cause of death, sharing similar risk factors such as elevated glucose, high blood lipids, and high blood pressure. MAFLD can be treated, the primary method lies in making healthy lifestyle changes which include decreasing and limiting the intake of processed meats, sweets, pizza, cakes, sugary drinks, junk food, fast foods, and confectionery while increasing consumption of nutritious fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A Mediterranean-style type of diet is often recommended along with avoiding alcohol. In addition to more healthful food choices, participating in regular exercise/physical activity can provide protection against MAFLD.
“Overall, the increase in MAFLD is concerning, as this condition can lead to liver failure and cardiovascular diseases and has an important health disparity,” adds researcher Theodore C. Friedman, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine & Science.
For this study which was presented at the Endocrine Society’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, three decades of data on 32,726 Americans who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) were analyzed. “We found that overall, both MAFLD and obesity increased with time, with the increase in MAFLD greater than the increase in obesity,” Friedman says. Hispanics are even more prone to this condition than Black and White people, in what the researchers describe as being “a public health concern”.
“The prevalence of MAFLD increased faster than the prevalence of obesity, suggesting that the increase in the other risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension may also contribute to the increase in the prevalence of MAFLD,” Dr. Shaheen notes. “In summary, MAFLD is increasing with time and more efforts are needed to control this epidemic.”
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