Fatty liver linked with heart failure within a decade, but it’s easily fixed

Obesity often goes hand in hand with fatty liver disease, which in turn predicts heart failure.

Obesity often goes hand in hand with fatty liver disease, which in turn predicts heart failure. Photo: Getty

First the bad news: Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which affects up to 30 per cent of adult Australians, is associated with an increased risk of heart failure within a decade.

In other words, if you develop fatty liver disease (NAFLD) this week, then there’s a good chance that within the next 10 years your heart won’t be pumping adequate blood through your body.

Numerous studies from the past couple of years have identified a link between NAFLD and heart failure.

The latest research – a meta-analysis of about 11 million individuals from Italian and British researchers – is the first to quantify the risk against a time frame.

Overall, they found that people with NAFLD had a 50 per cent higher risk of suffering heart failure.

But the risk increases with the severity of the disease.

When the condition progresses to extensive liver fibrosis (scarring), the risk of heart failure was 76 per cent.

Fatty liver disease in Australia

The short version: NAFLD is the progressive build-up of fat in the liver you get from eating too much, fats and sugars.

So obesity, being overweight, having type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance tend to walk hand in hand with NAFLD.

Getting older is a risk factor.

Non-alcoholic liver disease can progress to liver failure or cancer. Photo: Getty

It’s largely asymptomatic, but some people will suffer fatigue and experience pain or discomfort in the upper-right abdomen.

But over time, NAFLD is a progressive disease and can wreck the liver to the same extent as alcohol abuse.

In November, we reported on research that found Australia is wobbling its way into an epidemic of NAFLD – with nearly half of regional people over the age of 60 affected.

The epidemic was found to have been spreading quietly for at least 30 years – and yet the full scale of the problem isn’t fully known.

Booze isn’t the main driver of the epidemic. It largely comes down to what we’re eating.

Bottom line: Australia’s persistently poor diet and lack of exercise are catching up with us in the form of NAFLD – which often goes undiagnosed, and yet is a leading cause of cirrhosis (scarring) and primary liver cancer.

In March 2020, modelling from the University of Western Australia predicted 30,000 deaths from NAFLD.

The trend is largely being driven by childhood obesity – and the deep love our kiddies have for soft drinks.

What to do about it?

In October, we reported that eating a moderate amount of nuts and seeds each day appears to prevent NAFLD.

Lead researcher, Dr Elena George, from Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, said her study found that eating as little as 15 to 30 grams of nuts and seeds a day could reduce the likelihood of the disease.

In April last year, we reported on a series of studies that found cocoa was effective in reducing the severity of liver disease.

One of those studies focused on 21 end-stage patients with cirrhosis of the liver.

For those patients, cocoa markedly reduced blood pressure in the liver – and thus prevented potential ruptures.

This might inspire you to go hard with chocolate as a health food and life saver.

The reality is, NAFLD is reversible – by eating more vegetables and fruit, and otherwise a healthier diet, and by getting off the couch and doing a little exercise every day.

It’s the same advice you’ll have heard from your doctor. It’s the same advice that most of us choose to ignore.

For more information on NAFLD and how to reverse it, see here.

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