Up to half-a-million overweight/obese children in England have a significant risk of developing “fatty liver disease”, Professor Martin Lombard, the country’s National Clinical Director for Liver Disease has warned.

Fatty liver disease, also known in this case as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, is a condition in which fat accumulates in the liver, it can cause inflammation and liver scarring. Many patients have no signs or symptoms. Severe fatty liver disease is sometimes called non-alcoholic steatohepatitis. In severe cases the condition can progress to liver failure.

Prof. Lombard said that excessive fat in liver cells undermines its proper function, raising the risk of having a stroke or heart attack. The risk of cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes later in life is high.

Fatty liver disease can have many causes, including obesity, diabetes, corticosteroids, some poisons (such as carbon tetrachloride and yellow phosphorus), Cushing’s syndrome, and hyperlipidemia (high fat levels in blood). It can also be caused by long-term high alcohol consumption, in which case it is called Alcoholic Liver Disease – there are three stages: Alcoholic fatty liver disease, Alcoholic hepatitis, and Cirrhosis.

Fatty liver disease during childhood is mainly caused by overweight/obesity.

Prof. Lombard warns that up to 60,000 English ten-year-old kids may be at risk of having too much fat in their livers, significantly raising their risk of having serious health problems later on in life. The outlook for the country is even more alarming when figures include 4 to 14 year-olds, he added.

According to official government statistics, childhood obesity rates in England appear to be leveling off. However, the total number of overweight children remains excessively high. Almost one fifth of all four-year-olds and a third of 10-to-11 year-olds are obese or overweight. Among this generation of children, “non-alcoholic fatty liver disease could be a silent killer”, Lombard warned.

Professor Lombard said:

“The unfortunate problem with liver disease is you don’t get any symptoms at all until it’s at an advanced stage. So you get cirrhosis and then you have complications that arise from that cirrhosis which can be very serious. So it’s not until that late stage that you get any symptoms at all. Parents should be concerned about children who are overweight as they will be at risk of developing fatty liver. If they don’t become more active and lose the weight as they go on, then they become overweight adults and have a range of other risk factors as well.”

Many UK experts fear that obesity/overweight could eventually overtake alcohol as the main cause of cirrhosis. Liver diseases and conditions are costing the National Health Service more and more of its resources each year.

The main problem with fatty liver disease is that symptoms tend not to appear until the condition is well advanced.

Prof. Lombard said the risk of liver disease is heightened by another factor – England has a high incidence of binge drinking and alcohol abuse among young adults and teenagers. If children enter their late-teen or early-adulthood years with existing liver problems and start experimenting with alcohol, their condition could worsen rapidly.

Written by Christian Nordqvist