An Update On Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty Liver

Fatty Liver

Of all of the common complications of obesity, fatty liver disease is perhaps the most insidious. Often starting without clinical symptoms and little more than a mild increase in liver enzymes, it can progress to inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis and ultimate liver failure. It can also markedly increase the risk for hepatocellular cancer even in patients who do not progress to cirrhosis.

Now, a paper by Mary Rinella from Northwestern University, Chicago, published in JAMA provides a comprehensive overview of what we know and do not know about early detection and management of this condition.

The findings are based on a review of 16 randomized clinical trials, 44 cohort or case-control studies, 6 population-based studies, and 7 meta-analyses.

Overall between 75 million and 100 million individuals in the US are estimated to have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease with 66% of individuals older than 50 years with diabetes or obesity having nonalcoholic steatohepatitis with advanced fibrosis.

Although the diagnosis and staging of fatty liver disease requires a liver biopsy, biomarkers (e.g. cytokeratin 18) may eventually help in the detection of advanced fibrosis.

In addition, non-invasive imaging techniques including vibration-controlled transient elastography, ultrasound with acoustic radiation force impulse or even magnetic resonance elastography are fairly accurate in the detection of hepatic fibrosis and are the most reliable modalities for the diagnosis of advanced fibrosis (cirrhosis or precirrhosis).


Currently, weight loss is the only proven treatment for fatty liver disease. Pharmacotherapy including treatment with vitamin E, pioglitazone, and obeticholic acid may also provide some benefit (none of these treatments currently are approved for this indication by the UD FDA). Futhermore, the potential benefits of existing and emerging anti-obesity treatments on the incidence and progression of fatty liver remains to be established.

As Rinella points out,

“It is important that primary care physicians, endocrinologists, and other specialists be aware of the scope and long-term effects of the disease.”

Clearly, screening for fatty liver disease needs to be part of every routine work up of individuals presenting with excess weight.

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