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Fatty Liver Disease

The Fatty Liver Disease Program at Yale New Haven Hospital is part of the hospital’s comprehensive Digestive Health Service that offers a team of expert clinicians who diagnose, treat and help patients manage a range of gastrointestinal conditions.

What is non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFLD)?

Fatty liver disease occurs when fat accumulates in the liver. This may lead to swelling and inflammation that can cause liver scarring, cirrhosis, and additional health problems. You are more likely to develop fatty liver disease with age, obesity or diabetes. Up to 25% of Americans have fatty liver disease.

When you gain too much weight, it doesn't just accumulate on the outside of your body. Fat may deposit inside within organs such as the liver causing a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Liver cells fill with large fat droplets and can become stressed, damaged or scarred—some even die. Excessive inflammation in the liver may develop and progress to cirrhosis, hardened, scarred liver tissue that stops the liver from functioning normally.

Most people who have a body mass index (BMI) over 27 have fatty liver disease and may not know it. Fatty liver disease is silent at the start, much like high blood pressure. It is often discovered incidentally, when tests are taken for unrelated reasons. If blood or imaging tests reveal liver abnormalities, a physician will perform tests to rule out such other common liver diseases as hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Who is at risk for fatty liver disease?

People who gain weight in the abdomen are at greater risk than those who gain weight around their hips or shoulders. This weight distribution in the abdomen is more common among men, putting them at slightly higher risk compared to women. Fatty liver disease typically occurs alongside other diseases related to obesity such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and most importantly, diabetes.

How is fatty liver disease treated?

Even a moderate amount of weight loss - 5 to 10% in most people - is often enough to improve inflammation, reduce scarring and allow the liver to regenerate itself. Bariatric surgery is the most effective way to quickly lose weight to treat fatty liver disease – 90% of patients show improvement after weight-loss surgery. Bariatric surgery may also reduce the risk of liver cancer. The liver has a high capacity to repair itself if fatty liver disease is identified early. If needed, your doctor can screen for liver cancer so that it is detected and treated at the earliest stage.

If you have abnormal liver test results, we'll look for the potential causes of those results so that we can develop an effective plan to help you make healthy lifestyle changes and lose weight. The Metabolic Health and Weight Loss program offers alternatives to GI patients who are overweight with medical conditions.

At Yale New Haven Hospital, we offer all effective non-surgical weight-loss interventions. In association with Yale Medicine, we conduct research to shed light on the underlying causes of fatty liver disease in order to develop improved treatments. And if weight-loss surgery is required, our bariatric surgeons are available to help with the latest, most proven techniques.