Overweight and obese young men are at increased risk for serious liver disease or liver cancer later in life, and those with diabetes have an even higher risk, a new study warns.
Efforts to reduce obesity, “should be implemented from an early age to reduce the future burden of severe liver disease on individuals and society,” say Swedish researchers led by Hannes Hagstrom, of the Center for Digestive Diseases at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.
A liver specialist in the United States agreed.
“This should be a wake-up call for young men to take their weight seriously and take steps to stay in shape to hopefully prevent liver disease, diabetes and liver cancer in the future,” said Dr. David Bernstein, chief of hepatology at Northwell Health in Manhasset, NY.
He explained that obesity is linked to the development of a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), where fat starts to be deposited in the organ. In turn, NAFLD is “a leading cause of cirrhosis and a common indication for liver transplantation,” Bernstein said.
Links between obesity, NAFLD and liver cancer are also “concerning,” based on the Swedish report, he said.
In the new study, Hagstrom’s team tracked data on more than 1.2 million Swedish males conscripted into the military between 1969 and 1996. They were followed from one year after conscription until the end of 2012.
During the decades of follow-up, there were almost 5,300 cases of serious liver disease, including 251 cases of liver cancer.
Compared to men of normal weight, the risk of liver disease later in life was nearly 50 percent higher for those who were overweight and nearly twice as high for those who were obese when they were young men.
The risk was more than tripled for men who were both obese and went on to develop type 2 diabetes, the study found.
The findings suggest that rising rates of overweight and obesity worldwide — about 1 billion people are projected to be obese by 2030 — could lead to an increase in the number of cases of severe liver disease and cancer in the future, the researchers said.
Bernstein said the findings “highlight the importance of early intervention for this disorder to prevent significant liver disease which may occur decades in the future.”
Dr. Mitchell Roslin is chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He agreed that, “fat infiltration of the liver is becoming a leading cause of liver failure and very much related to insulin resistance and diabetes.”
“This article shows that these changes originate in adolescence and the lifetime risk is cumulative,” Roslin said. “The real solution is a very healthy diet and active lifestyle.”
The new study is published online March 20 in the journal Gut.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on healthy weight.