“The liver is evil and must be punished”, or at least you’d think so if a recent report in the Lancet is anything to go by. A leading group of British liver specialists, led by Professor Roger Williams, have highlighted the rising rates of liver disease in the UK. The report states that liver disease is the third most common cause of premature death in the UK, with a 400% increase in disease rates since the 1970s. Liver disease causes a million hospital admissions and costs £3.5 billion every year.
As a doctor I see liver disease throughout the year. One of the problems is that picking up liver conditions early is often difficult. Sometimes a patient may not have any symptoms. The problem might be found on a blood test taken for another reason entirely.
The three main areas causing an increase in liver disease are obesity, excess alcohol and hepatitis infection. Obesity causes liver disease by forcing fat into the liver, rendering the liver somewhat akin to foie gras. This is called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Alcohol causes the imaginatively named alcoholic liver disease.
Both of these causes, along with Hepatitis B and C, can lead onto the development of cirrhosis of the liver. This is an irreversible condition resulting in the scarring of the liver. Put simply, a scarred or cirrhotic liver doesn’t work, at least not very well. Ultimately this leads to death.
To very loosely generalise, British society is rapidly becoming one of fat boozers. Obesity is increasing and our desire for inebriated annihilation is only all too obvious in the bar districts of our towns and cities on weekend evenings. Alcohol and calories are readily available and we’re consuming them with alacrity.
What can we do to prevent liver disease? Prof. Williams and his team include a number of calls for action. These include more timely diagnosis, better treatment options and raising awareness in the public. Raising the price of alcohol might go some what to helping.
What can we do to reduce our risk of liver disease? Put down the pint, get some exercise and eat a balanced, heathy diet. Easier said than done but without concerted efforts both individually and as a population, nothing will change.
Image rights; F Bellon, Pat Guiney