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New Health Risk for Obese Children

Maureen Jonas By Maureen Jonas

Posted Oct 24, 2006

By making diet and exercise an integral part of a family's life, each and every one can do his or her part to control the spread of obesity and the diseases that are directly connected to the problem.

The obesity problem in our country has spawned a host of diseases that are rapidly on the rise, particularly among children.

New research from the University of California at San Diego suggests that as many as 6.5 million American children could have a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

NAFLD is an accumulation of fat in the liver cells, and in some instances can lead to dangerous complications such as cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and end-stage liver disease requiring a transplant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, a number that has tripled since 1980.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.

With over 28 percent of men and 35 percent of women in the United States considered obese, America is facing a crisis: a rise in non- alcoholic fatty liver disease that is directly connected to obesity in children and adults.

In Massachusetts alone, the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 27 percent of the population is overweight.

Fatty liver joins the plethora of other obesity-related diseases - high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

It is normal for a person's liver to contain some fat, but if that fat accounts for more than 5 percent to 10 percent of the liver's weight, then fatty liver is present and serious complications may develop. A patient with fatty liver disease usually does not know he or she has the condition until the problem has become very advanced.

Unfortunately, fatty liver produces little or no symptoms of its own. The liver is a tough organ; it can be inflamed for years, even decades, before it begins to show signs of disease. People often learn they have the disease when they have medical tests for other reasons.

The number of young patients with fatty liver disease has grown rapidly over the last decade and the number of referrals for children with liver disease related to obesity has increased exponentially.

In my own experience, several new children are identified each week with liver disease of varying severity. Some of the children already have a lot of scarring in their livers, which is called cirrhosis.

Currently, there are no proven medical or surgical treatments for the disease, although studies of medications are under way. But there are a number of steps that people with the disease should take to lower the level of fat in their liver. These include losing weight, eating a healthy diet, increasing their physical activity, lowering their triglycerides and getting regular checkups from a doctor who specializes in liver care.

America's health is being damaged by the increase in obesity. We must start educating our children about the importance of healthy eating. Education begins at home. By making diet and exercise an integral part of a family's life, each and every one can do his or her part to control the spread of obesity and the diseases that are directly connected to the problem.

Even if you do not have weight to lose, teaching your children healthy eating habits could save them from a number of health problems in the future.

And by all means if you currently suffer from other obesity- related diseases, consult with your doctor about fatty liver disease.

Dr. Maureen Jonas is an associate in gastroenterology and medical director of the Liver Transplant Program at Children's Hospital Boston, and chairperson of the Medical Advisory Board of the American Liver Foundation New England Chapter. As You Were Saying is a regular feature of the Boston Herald. We invite our readers to contribute pieces of no more than 600 words. Mail contributions to the Boston Herald, P.O. Box 55843, Boston, MA 02205-5843, or e-mail to oped@bostonherald.com. All submissions are subject to editing and become the property of the Boston Herald.

Date: Oct 23, 2006

2006 Boston Herald. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved