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America's Liver Disease Epidemic: Are You at Risk?

By Charlotte Libov   |   Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014 02:59 PM

A new health epidemic is sweeping the country, and doctors warn it poses a grave threat to millions of Americans.
The number of people suffering from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is skyrocketing, and experts believe that the consumption of high fructose corn syrup may be fueling the crisis.
Over the past two decades, the incidence of fatty liver disease – also called nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) – has doubled. In advanced cases, a liver transplant is a patient's only hope.
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"NASH is becoming the next big epidemic to hit America," said Anurag Maheshwari, M.D., a liver specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "Within the next few decades, fatty liver disease will be the largest cause of long-term disability in the U.S. It's going to become a major healthcare burden."
The chief cause of NASH is obesity, which is linked in part to the high national consumption high fructose corn syrup, say doctors. "There is a lot of interplay," said Bipan Chand, M.D., director of the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care at Loyola University Medical School in Chicago.
Fatty liver disease is exactly what it sounds like: A buildup of fat in the liver. NASH occurs when inflammation of the liver is caused by the excess fat.
It's estimated that an astonishing 20 percent of American adults and 10 percent of children now have NASH.
What's more 2-3 percent of have a potentially deadly form of the disease that can result in cirrhosis, a disease once associated almost exclusively with alcohol abuse.   
According to experts, if the incidence of NASH continues to increase at its current rate, about 25 million Americans will have the disease a decade from now. About 5 million will need new livers. Right now only about 7,000 liver transplants are performed in the U.S. each year.  
Even those who develop a milder form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease may face shortened lives, Dr. Maheshwari told Newsmax Health. "Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease sharply increases the risk of heart disease risk, diabetes, elevated triglycerides, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure," he said.
High fructose corn syrup may be at the root of the epidemic, said Dr. Chand. The ubiquitous sweetener is easily converted to fat in the body, including the liver.
"If you think about an apple and banana, they have sugar, but the body has to do a lot of work to break that sugar down and metabolize it. High fructose corn syrup is very dense and easy or the body to convert into fat," Dr. Chand said.
Soft drinks, in particular, may be a prime culprit in the liver disease epidemic. "Liquid calories lead to obesity simply because it takes very little of it to consume a high calorie count," said Dr. Chand.
The obvious key to preventing NASH lies in losing weight, say doctors. However, there are other strategies that can help:
  • Drink coffee. Studies show that people who drink three or more cups of coffee daily are less likely to develop NASH.
  • Take 800 IUs of vitamin E daily. Taking vitamin E may have a protective effect over time.
  • Eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains instead of processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup.
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The number of Americans with obesity-related nonalcoholic fatty liver disease is skyrocketing, and experts believe that the consumption of high fructose corn syrup may be fueling the crisis. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risks.
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