Non-Alcohol Related Liver Disease Ups Heart Disease Risk   

Non-Alcohol Related Liver Disease Ups Heart Disease Risk

Hands showing a spot on a liver model

July 14, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Brett Sealove, M.D., FACC, RPVI

More than 25 percent of adults worldwide—and more than half of people with Type 2 diabetes—have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The disease is silent in the beginning stages, with no signs or symptoms. Since there isn’t a good way to screen for NAFLD, it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose. The condition is usually only identified when a person’s liver has stopped working properly and has potentially irreversible damage.  

It has been long known that NAFLD commonly causes chronic liver disease. But doctors are only beginning to understand the condition’s connection to heart damage.

Recently, the American Heart Association released a scientific statement in their Atherosclerosis journal that describes how NAFLD is associated with atherosclerosis, a cardiovascular disease where arteries harden and block blood flow.  

What Is Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disorder?

NAFLD is fatty buildup in the liver that isn’t caused by alcohol consumption. The condition is associated with visceral belly fat, bad cholesterol and, in some instances, Type 2 diabetes.  

“We know that these risk factors, namely high fat in the gut, high triglycerides, elevated blood stream sugar levels, and bad cholesterol all put a patient at high risk for heart disease,” says Brett Sealove, M.D., chief of Cardiology at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “The sum of all these risks is higher than non-alcoholic fatty liver disorder itself.”

Dr. Sealove points out that while roughly 10 to 25 percent of people with NAFLD will eventually develop progressive liver disease, heart disease is the leading cause of death in these individuals. “It is important for people to be more aware because of the prognosis,” he says.  

Diagnosis and Treatment 

Unfortunately, NAFLD is underdiagnosed and underrecognized. If a patient has elevated liver function, a doctor may use an ultrasound or MRI to screen for NAFLD. Unfortunately, screening doesn’t always detect the condition. Because of this, it’s important for people with the three main risk factors to be screened for NAFLD:

  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Type 2 diabetes

To treat NAFLD, doctors ideally should use a two-pronged approach and work with patients to decrease their risk of liver disease as well as reduce cardiovascular risks. It’s important that people with NAFLD see a hepatologist (liver specialist) or gastroenterologist, along with a cardiologist to manage heart health risks.

Reducing Your Risk 

To lower your risk for NAFLD, it’s important to make changes to your lifestyle:

  • Eat a healthy diet. For most people, that means choosing fruits, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Eat a variety of proteins, and use healthier cooking methods like grilling and baking as opposed to frying. Limit your alcohol and sugar consumption. Talk with your doctor about developing a healthy eating plan. 
  • Lose weight. If you are overweight or obese, take steps to lose the extra weight by reducing your caloric intake and increasing your exercise.    
  • Exercise. It’s important to keep active and exercise almost every day. If you’ve been sedentary and want to start exercising, talk with your doctor first about how you can safely get started.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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