Fatty Liver Disease in Children: Without a Cure, Looking to Prevention

April 01, 2008

Today we have a guest blog from Emily Nuzzo, Educational Program Coordinator for the American Liver Foundation, Illinois Chapter. (Emily is also a former HSC intern!)

An obesity epidemic is sweeping the country, yet we as a society continue to lean toward reactive rather than preventive care: we tend to wait until we’re faced with the consequences of health problems before taking action. But we can’t afford to keep waiting, especially when it comes to children’s health. As we’re seeing more frequently, many obesity-related diseases simply don’t have easy cures.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune featured a story on fatty liver disease in children, Obesity takes toll.  It’s devastating to hear increasingly common stories such as this one about chronic medical conditions, once affecting only  adults, striking youth.

Andy, the child featured in the story, was diagnosed with fatty liver at eight years old.  He is currently 33 pounds over his ideal body weight.  He and his family are learning and practicing new healthful eating habits and exercising regularly.  Like the other parents featured in the story, Andy’s mother is making all the changes she can to help her son’s health.

As another mother explained, though, making time for exercise and healthy cooking can be difficult when working a full-time job requiring a two hour commute and a part-time job on the weekends.  There are times, she says, when fast food becomes a convenient option. As the article explains, “making lifestyle changes isn’t easy, even when the stakes are high.”

I currently work as the Educational Program Coordinator for the American Liver Foundation, Illinois Chapter.  Through this position, I’ve learned that fatty liver disease is considered the next epidemic of liver diseases, due in part to the obesity epidemic.  Fatty liver occurs due to excess fat in the liver as a result of high-fat food consumption. 

There is no current medication available to treat patients with fatty liver disease, and no cure for the disease. Only a change in lifestyle can help reduce the disease’s negative impact.

Today, I was surprised by Andy’s story.  Even though I know the statistics, I’m still surprised when I hear about very young children suffering from obesity-related diseases. I’m afraid, though, that stories like Andy’s will become all too common if we do not begin focusing seriously on prevention. The increased incidence of fatty liver disease in children is a dangerous one which requires an ongoing  fight for systemic change in addressing the health of children.   

Rather than waiting until children have health problems before focusing on healthy eating and active lifestyles, we need to do what we can to make these healthy habits a normal part of children’s lives. This involves efforts to make healthy foods more accessible and convenient for all families and, importantly, making healthy eating, physical activity and food education a part of the school day.

Children spend a good part of every day at school, and a healthy school environment can play a huge role in preventing  obesity-related chronic diseases such as fatty liver. 

My life’s mission is to increase the fruit and vegetable intake of every individual in the United States.  Being a young, idealistic, twenty-something, fresh out of graduate school. . . I want to believe that this big goal is achievable. When we look at diseases such as fatty liver that have no cure – and no treatment other than a healthy lifestyle – it seems that too much is at stake for our society not to make this type of change. Schools are a great place to start.