Fatty Liver Disease Endangers 6.5 Million U.S. Kids

It's a silent problem that can lead to liver failure, experts warn

MONDAY, Oct. 2, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- As many as 6.5 million American children could have a dangerous condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), new research suggests.

NAFLD -- an accumulation of fat in the liver cells -- can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, end-stage liver disease requiring a transplant, and liver cancer. Until now, there has been little research into the prevalence of NAFLD in children.

For this study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) analyzed 742 autopsy reports and tissue samples from San Diego County children and adolescents, aged 2 to 19, who died from traumatic accidents, murder or suicide between 1993 and 2003.

They found that 13 percent of the children and teens in the study had NAFLD. Based on that, they estimated that 9.6 percent of the children and adolescents in San Diego County have NAFLD.

"Fatty liver disease is a very common problem that has gone largely unnoticed," study leader Jeffrey Schwimmer, an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Fatty Liver and Weight and Wellness Clinics at Rady Children's Hospital, said in a prepared statement.

"If the prevalence in the United States is similar to the prevalence in San Diego, this would translate to 6.5 million children. The scale of the problem has enormous ramifications for the future health of these children," Schwimmer said.

He and his colleagues identified several major risk factors for NAFLD in children:

  • Age -- Fatty liver was found in 0.7 percent of children aged 2-4 and in 17.3 percent of those aged 15-19.
  • Ethnicity -- Hispanic-American children had a higher rate (11.8 percent) of fatty liver than Asians (10.2 percent), whites (8.6 percent) or blacks (1.5 percent).
  • Gender -- Boys had a much higher rate of fatty liver than girls.
  • Obesity -- Overweight and obese children accounted for 81 percent of all cases of fatty liver in the study.

More information

The American Liver Foundation offers tips on how to take care of your liver.

SOURCE: University of California, San Diego, news release, Oct. 2, 2006
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