Health & Wellness

What is fatty liver? The disease that killed George Michael, explained

Singer George Michael died of natural causes related to heart disease and fatty liver, according to the British coroner report released Tuesday. While most people understand the causes of cardiovascular disease, few know anything about fatty liver and how it can lead to adverse health outcomes or — in its most severe stage — death.

The reports surrounding Michael’s death don’t directly suggest that his health ultimately deteriorated due to excess drugs, and alcohol. However, it’s important to recognize these toxins can be destructive to the liver, the body's main detoxifying organ.

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The reports surrounding George Michael’s death don’t directly suggest that his health ultimately deteriorated due to excess drugs, and alcohol. But these toxins can be destructive to the liver, the body's main detoxifying organ.

What is a fatty liver?

As alcohol floods the system, the liver starts to form abnormal deposits of fat. This causes inflammation and scarring; eventually the healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue. That’s when your liver stops working and you find yourself on a transplant list.

But alcohol isn't the only factor — there are more common habits that may lead to the same disease.

Another type of liver disease is emerging, called Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD. It's caused by being overweight or obese and consumption of too much sugar and processed carbohydrates, along with a sedentary lifestyle and components associated with metabolic syndrome. It's quickly becoming the number one disease on the liver transplant list.

This fatty liver disease affects 33 percent of the U.S. population, including 6 million children. In fact, it’s the number one liver condition in children.

NAFLD is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and recent evidence shows that many patients with it are more likely to end up dying from the heart failure before they do liver disease.

Related: These 10 foods affect your risk of heart disease most

You may not know you have it

The scariest part: If you have it, you probably don’t know it.

NAFLD does not produce the telltale symptoms that cardiovascular disease presents. There are no chest pains to tip you off that your organ is in trouble. The good news, though, is that it’s not difficult to diagnose and is reversal is possible.

What can you do today to start a liver-friendly lifestyle?

  • Reduce your overall sugar intake, from the common sources like candy to the less common like crackers or salad dressing.
  • Increase color.
  • Eat more plants that are brightly hued with shades of green, red, orange, and purple.
  • Increase your consumption of omega 3 fatty acids from wild fish, chia and flax seeds, and walnuts.
  • Drink less.
  • Finally, start moving. Get off the couch, and aim for 10,000 steps a day.

All have been associated with a reduced risk of development or NAFLD. In the meantime, if you feel you are at risk, have a discussion with your physician or dietitian and start giving the one organ you think least about a lot more attention.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, is the author of "Skinny Liver". Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat

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