(ATLANTA) -- Nearly 10 percent of U.S. teens have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, a largely silent accumulation of fat in their liver cells that puts them at risk for developing later cardiovascular disease and additional liver problems, new research has found.
Most of the increase in cases of NAFLD, a disease not brought on by alcohol-related liver damage, is occurring among the heaviest teens -- those considered obese, based on their height, weight and age, said lead researcher Dr. Miriam Vos, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Emory University in Atlanta.
"We tried to see where the increase was happening and it looks like it's happening in the obese group," she said.
But ill health is not inevitable for obese teens whose livers already have sustained damage, said Vos, an assistant professor of pediatrics. "We think that liver disease is reversible, particularly for a teenager if they can make substantial changes and improve their weight," she added.
Vos determined that the prevalence of fatty liver among U.S. teens has more than doubled in the past two decades, from 3.6 percent to 9.9 percent, outpacing the rise in teenage obesity during that time and suggesting obesity is only a partial explanation for a rise. Vos' findings come from health data collected for 10,359 adolescents who participated in the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1988 and 2008.
Even without fully understanding why numbers are up, "this is a disease that definitely needs attention. We need programs that focus on prevention of both obesity and fatty liver disease," said Vos, who is scheduled to present her findings Monday at Digestive Disease Week in San Diego, an annual gathering of nearly 16,000 physicians, researchers and academics.
The increase in fatty liver and its associated risks provide strong support for "recommendations to screen for NAFLD in obese adolescents," Vos and her colleagues concluded.
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