Aug 29, 2018

Announcer: Access to our experts with in-depth information about the biggest health issues facing you today, "The Specialists" with Dr. Tom Miller is on The Scope.

Interviewer: Fatty liver disease affects more than 80 million Americans, and many of them don't even know they have it. Dr. Tom Miller, why does fatty liver disease concern you as a doctor?

Dr. Miller: Well, fatty liver disease is becoming the most common chronic liver disease in the industrialized Western world, and especially in the United States. And it used to be, we had viral hepatitis as a cause of liver disease and a major cause of transplantation, which it still is, but very shortly the major reason for liver transplantation due to liver failure is going to be fatty liver.

Interviewer: And not necessarily caused by alcohol. I always thought it was, you know, people that drank a lot tend to get fatty liver disease.

Dr. Miller: Well, they get liver disease. It's not necessarily fatty liver disease as you would think about it, and it was and still continues to be a cause of liver disease, but because of our lifestyle and the fact that 30% of the people living in the United States have obesity, fatty liver disease is now the most common cause of chronic liver disease.

Interviewer: Yeah, 80 million Americans, that's quite a . . . that's almost an epidemic, isn't it? Like, if 80 million Americans had any other sort of disease, we would be freaking out.

Dr. Miller: Right. I think the term might be just a little bit . . . The categorization of it is a little bit misleading because not everyone with fatty liver disease goes on to develop liver failure. In fact, a small percentage of those people end up with liver failure, but given the large number of people with fatty liver disease, a significant number of Americans will end up with end-stage liver disease.

Interviewer: And what exactly is going on? So I think the name implies that there's some fat, maybe excess fat deposits in the liver, but why is that bad?

Dr. Miller: Fat is a cause, a driver of inflammation, and we don't exactly know why, but when people gain weight, some of that weight is stored centrally and also stored between the cells in the liver. So if you look at a person's tissue from the liver, you will see if they have fatty liver, which is called non-alcoholic fatty liver. You'll see fat stores or globules in between the cells. For whatever reason, this causes inflammation, and inflammation predisposes to damage, fibrosis, and destruction of the active cells in the liver which help us cleanse our body of toxins.

Interviewer: And you're talking about scarring.

Dr. Miller: I'm talking about scarring.

Interviewer: That's why I used those words, yeah.

Dr. Miller: Fibrosis leads to scarring.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Miller: Now, again, most people with fatty liver don't end up with inflammation, and we don't exactly understand why some people have problems with inflammation related to their fatty liver versus those who don't. And not everyone who has inflammation in the liver goes on to develop cirrhosis.

Interviewer: But it's certainly a path you don't want to go down and find those things out.

Dr. Miller: No, definitely not, and it can be treated.

Interviewer: All right. So, when a patient comes into your office, can you look at them and tell if they have the bad kind of fatty liver disease that could lead to transplant or death?

Dr. Miller: I think the way that we think about it now, I believe the way we think about it now is if you're obese, that is you have a body mass index greater than 30, your chances are pretty high of having non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. So, basically, the same thing that we've talked about on these shows in the past, right diet, right weight, right exercise is your best treatment to prevent it. This is a problem with industrialized countries having too much food and the wrong kinds of food available.

Interviewer: Yeah. And once that scarring happens, there's no cure for it. It eventually will lead to liver failure.

Dr. Miller: Once you start down a path of scarring, your chances of ending up with end-stage liver disease and needing a transplant are pretty high. Not only that, you are predisposed, with that scarring, to liver cancer.

Interviewer: And if you start to lose some weight, I understand it doesn't take, necessarily, a lot of weight reduction to reduce the number of fat cells in the liver and kind of start backing that thing up if scarring hasn't occurred.

Dr. Miller: Right. I think one, again, wants to head for a normal BMI, which is between 18.5 and 25.

Interviewer: Okay.

Dr. Miller: And that's not easy. I mean, I tell you that that's the treatment, but attaining that treatment for everybody is difficult because we don't have a medication for weight loss that works, and basically it's a lifestyle adjustment, which is hard for people given the abundance of food.

Interviewer: And there are tests that you can do to determine, for sure, if there are.

Dr. Miller: There are. So we basically start looking at the issue of inflammation in people who we think might have fatty liver disease by looking at the enzymes that the liver produces on a blood test. If these are elevated, there are a number of causes, but eventually, if you can rule out sort of the medical, the drug-associated causes and other causes, that is if they're not drinking, you can think that this is probably related to a non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. And if you really want to know damage to the liver, you're going to have to do a liver biopsy. There's another test now that's non-invasive, but liver biopsy is still the gold standard.

Interviewer: And we haven't really hit on this, but it often doesn't have symptoms.

Dr. Miller: The vast majority of people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are not symptomatic.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Miller: And, in fact, you're only symptomatic towards the end . . .

Interviewer: When it's kind of too late.

Dr. Miller: . . . with this disease when you have fibrosis and scarring or liver cancer. So, again, we want to look at obesity and lifestyle as a response to prevent this.

Interviewer: So get that body mass index back into a reasonable area?

Dr. Miller: Well, it's the same thing we talk about for all of the things that we now kind of associate with the Western world diet, which is high blood pressure, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes. They're all in a basket, including this non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. And, again, the treatment is at our hand, but it's not easy to achieve.

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