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Early forms of liver disease affect heart health, says study

Liver Disease: Expert discusses risks and symptoms

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Expert cardiologist, Dr Alan Kwan said his research team wanted to “examine the connections between the heart and liver”. Based at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, Dr Kwan elaborated on his study rationale. “The liver processes cholesterol and produces factors involved in blood clotting and inflammation,” he began.

“[These] can affect the heart, so we wanted to take a closer look at these associations.”

For the study, the researchers reviewed electronic medical record of 1,668 patients, who had differing levels of liver fibrosis, in the past 11 years.

All patients involved in the database also had a cardiac MRI within a year of having their liver analysed.

Cardiac MRI provides detailed imaging of the heart, which includes its structure, muscle composition, and blood vessel size.

After analysis, elevated markers of fibrosis were associated with abnormalities in heart function and vascular dimension.

Even subtle forms of liver disease seemingly impacted heart health, the researchers noted in the journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine.

Dr Kwan, who is a cardiac imaging researcher, said: “The abnormalities we saw were vascular changes – enlargement of the blood vessels coming out of the heart, as well as an increase in how much blood was moving.

“Typically, when physicians examine the heart, we aren’t thinking about the liver and vice versa. We tend to be very specialised in our own organ categories.

 

“But this study’s findings indicate that we can and should screen for liver conditions when looking at heart conditions.

“We can’t view the heart and the liver as completely separate organs functioning on their own islands.”

This research has also caused other questions to come to light, such as: “When treating people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, could medications to treat this also help the heart?”

Dr Kwan, the lead author of the study, questioned: “When you see your cardiologist… and high cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes and family history are discussed, should non-alcoholic fatty liver disease also be a standard risk factor to consider?”

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

The NHS explained that a build-up of fat in the liver is “usually” seen in people who are overweight or obese.

In the early stages, the fat in the liver doesn’t cause any harm, but if it continues to build up, it can damage the organ.

High levels of fat in the liver is associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.

“If you already have diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) increases your chance of developing heart problems,” the NHS says.

When there is little fat in the liver, there are typically no symptoms.

Yet, as inflammation ensues and the liver tissue thickens, you could experience:

  • A dull or aching pain in the top right of the tummy (over the lower right side of the ribs)
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness.

In more severe stages, when cirrhosis develops, jaundice can occur (which is when the whites of the eyes turn yellow, and the skin takes on a yellow-ish hue).

Another tell-tale sign of advanced liver disease is when the legs, ankles, feet, and stomach become swollen.

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