Fatty liver disease is the most common liver condition in the United States. But how much does fatty liver disease impact your lifespan? In this article, we take a look at what the fatty liver disease life expectancy looks like, and how you can help mitigate liver inflammation. Read on to find out more.
What Does Science Say?
Let’s look at what the science says about how fatty liver disease can impact mortality. A study published in BMC Gastroenterology and conducted by Icelandic researchers examined liver-related death rates in individuals with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD). (1) Researchers identified patients who had undergone a liver biopsy between 1984 and 2009 and conducted a follow-up to determine mortality. (1)
Results showed that compared to the general population, individuals with NAFLD or AFLD have a higher chance of mortality due to liver-related causes, and individuals with AFLD had higher mortality rates when compared to those with NAFLD.
Furthermore, a cohort study published in Gut analyzed the mortality of all NAFLD patients in Sweden. (2) Researchers found that NAFLD is linked to a higher mortality rate, mainly due to cirrhosis and extrahepatic cancer. (2)
Why Can Fatty Liver Disease Affect Lifespan?
Fatty liver disease is linked to a higher mortality rate because of the progression of fatty liver disease to more serious forms of liver disease, as well as other related risk factors.
The Progression of Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease can affect lifespan because it can progress over time if left untreated.
Fatty liver disease is characterized by the buildup of fat particles within liver cells. This accumulation of fat particles in liver cells is called steatosis. Both NAFLD and AFLD are characterized by the accumulation of fat within the liver. However, alcoholic fatty liver disease stems from the chronic consumption of large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time.
Steatohepatitis describes the inflammation of liver tissue that occurs when fat builds up in the liver. Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) develops as a result of NAFLD, while alcoholic hepatitis develops as a result of AFLD. When liver tissue becomes inflamed, it slowly starts to become damaged. Liver fibrosis refers to the accumulation of scar tissue within the liver.
Over time, liver fibrosis leads to liver cirrhosis. Liver cirrhosis describes significant scarring in the liver that causes damage and can impact lifespan. A cirrhotic liver is hard and texture and is accompanied by symptoms like jaundice, fatigue, and muscle wasting. Early stages of fibrosis and cirrhosis may be managed with diet and lifestyle changes, as well as other medical inventions. However, cirrhosis can lead to significant liver disease and eventually, end-stage liver disease. The only treatment for end-stage liver disease is to undergo a liver transplant.
Cirrhosis of the liver and liver damage increase the risk of developing liver cancer. Liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma, results from the proliferation of malignant cells. Cancerous cells contain damaged DNA, and the body has been unable to keep the growth of these dangerous cells in check. As a result, these malignant cells multiply and develop into cancerous growths. Liver cancer compromises liver function and can lead to end-stage liver disease and liver failure.
Both NAFLD and AFLD are connected to other negative health impacts. Individuals with NAFLD often also struggle with obesity, insulin resistance, hypertension or high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar levels, all of which can eventually contribute to a lower life expectancy.
Individuals with alcoholic liver disease are usually heavy drinkers. The chronic consumption of alcohol can damage other organs, in addition to the liver. For example, drinking too much alcohol can damage the heart, immune system, and brain, contributing to a lower life expectancy over time.
Reversing Fatty Liver Disease
If you intervene early, it is possible to reverse fatty liver disease and help make sure that it makes a negligible impact on your lifespan. Here are a few steps you can take to support liver health and the reversal of fatty liver disease.
Eliminate Alcohol Intake
If you are a chronic heavy drinker, cutting alcohol out of your diet is one of the best things you can do to protect your liver’s health and increase your life expectancy. Keep in mind that if you are physically dependent on alcohol, you must slowly cut back on your intake. Abruptly stopping alcohol consumption is dangerous, and in some cases fatal. Always make sure to taper your alcohol intake and seek medical attention to make sure that you are detoxing from alcohol safely and effectively.
Eliminating alcohol is the first step you should take, especially if alcohol consumption is the cause of fibrosis. Other interventions for managing liver fibrosis won’t be successful if you don’t eliminate alcohol consumption first.
Even if your case of liver fibrosis is a result of other conditions, it’s still a good idea to cut back on or possibly eliminate alcohol consumption altogether. Drinking on top of another liver condition like hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or hemochromatosis has an additive effect.
Consume a Liver-Friendly Diet
The foods you eat can play a critical role in reversing fatty liver disease. Cleaning up your diet can have a significant impact by reducing inflammation in the liver and expediting the repair of liver tissue. Here are a few tips:
- Swap refined grains for whole grains. Refined grains have been subjected to an industrial process that has removed the most nutritious part of the grain, including the outer hull that contains the highest concentration of vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and antioxidants. The remaining product is the starchy inside of the grain. We recognize refined grains as white rice, white bread, and white pasta. Though tasty, these refined grain products are treated like sugar in the body and send blood glucose levels soaring. Eating an abundance of refined grains is also linked to fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. Instead, opt for whole grains that are unprocessed or minimally processed.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are healthy for all organ systems, including the liver. Eating fruits and vegetables increases your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants considerably. As a result, the body is able to utilize these micronutrients to lower inflammation and oxidative stress, therefore slowing down fibrosis.
- Eliminate processed foods. Aim to limit or eliminate processed foods in your diet. Usually, processed foods are devoid of nutrients and high in unhealthy ingredients like sodium, sugar, saturated fat, and preservatives. All of these ingredients may increase inflammation in the liver. Instead of packaged and processed foods, aim to eat primarily whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and lean meat.
While all of the above dietary recommendations are very important, essential amino acids from high-quality protein may play a particularly important role in liver health. Amino acids are the individual building blocks of protein that the body uses in numerous cellular processes, from muscle synthesis to producing enzymes. Essential amino acids are particularly important in the human diet, because they cannot be synthesized internally and must be obtained from dietary sources.
Certain essential amino acids may have protective effects on the liver. For example, research shows that histidine may play a role in lowering oxidative stress in the damaged livers of rats. (4) The intake of leucine – another essential amino acid – may play a particularly important role in improving metabolic processes associated with insulin resistance and glucose metabolism. Research also shows that leucine may protect against the accumulation of fat within liver cells. (5)
How can you make sure that you’re getting the essential amino acids that you need in your diet? Incorporating high-quality protein into your diet is crucial. Animal proteins offer optimal ratios of essential amino acids in each source. For example, chicken breast, nonfat yogurt, and low-fat cheese are good examples of high-quality animal proteins to add to your diet.
Oily fish is also an excellent source of protein, because it supplies optimal ratios of essential amino acids as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are potent anti-inflammatory agents. Vegetable sources of protein may also provide essential amino acids. However, it’s important to combine various sources of vegetable protein throughout the day, to ensure that you’re getting the optimal ratios of essential amino acids that you need.
Coffee may have a therapeutic effect on liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. A meta-analysis conducted by researchers in China evaluated the impact of coffee consumption on liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. (6) According to the analysis of 16 studies, drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of developing liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. (6)
So, add a cup of coffee or two to your daily routine. To keep your coffee beverages completely liver-friendly, avoid ingredients like sugar, cream, and whole milk. Stick to options like skim milk, almond milk, or coconut creamer.
Support a Healthy Body Weight
Obesity, metabolic health, and fatty liver disease are intertwined. Obesity is a significant risk factor for developing fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease is often linked with signs of metabolic syndrome such as high cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes. Weight loss alone can have a significant positive impact on fatty liver disease. As the body loses fat deposits, the fat in liver cells will also naturally decrease.
You can encourage fat loss by creating a moderate calorie deficit in your daily diet. This means you should consume fewer calories than you burn. To encourage weight loss, strive to eat a healthy, balanced diet and engage in regular physical activity. Be careful to avoid rapid weight loss, which can be unhealthy for the liver.
Intervene as Early as Possible
It’s important to take action as soon as you have been diagnosed with liver disease. Making dietary and lifestyle actions earlier in the process helps prevent the further progression of liver disease. Less liver damage has occurred at earlier stages of disease, and the liver and body are more resilient and more able to repair affected tissue.
Key Takeaways: What to Know About Fatty Liver Disease Life Expectancy
Research reveals that fatty liver disease is connected to higher mortality rates. But if you have fatty liver disease, are you tethered to these outcomes? Not necessarily. The choices you make now can add years to your life! Cutting out alcohol, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, getting balanced ratios of essential amino acids, and maintaining a healthy weight can help you reverse fatty liver disease and gain a more favorable life expectancy.