The effects of obesity can be seen in children as young as eight

Obesity may adversely affect liver health in children as young as 8 years old, according to a new study led by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center.

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The researchers analysed the waist circumference of children aged 3 to 8 years old and found that children with a bigger waist circumference were more likely to have markers for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease condition arises when too much fat accumulates in the liver, causing inflammation and damage.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is the most common chronic liver condition in adults and children, affecting an estimated 80 million individuals in the US. The disease does not usually cause symptoms but can eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and, in some cases, liver cancer.

Many parents know that obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic conditions, but there is far less awareness that obesity, even in young children, can lead to serious liver disease."

Jennifer Woo Baidal, Columbia University Medical Center

Previous research has focused on the condition in adolescents and young adults, but the current study looked at risk factors for fatty liver in young children.

Jennifer and her team measured blood levels of a liver damage marker called ALT among 635 children from Project Viva, a prospective study of women and children in Massachusetts.

As reported in the Journal of Pediatrics, 23% of the children had an elevated ALT level by the age of 8. Children with a bigger waist circumference at age 3 and those who gained more weight between 3 and 8 years old were more likely to have a raised ALT.

Around 35% of children who were obese at age 8 had a high ALT, compared with 20% of normal-weight children. Jennifer says some clinicians start measuring ALT in at-risk children at around the age of 10, but that these findings highlight the importance of acting earlier on in a child’s life.

We urgently need better ways to screen, diagnose, prevent, and treat this disease starting in childhood.”

Jennifer Woo Baidal, Columbia University Medical Center

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