What you need to know about fatty liver disease and how to prevent it

Key takeaways:  

  • There are two main types of fatty liver disease: alcoholic fatty liver disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

  • Key risk factors for NAFLD include obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol or high triglycerides.

  • Fatty liver disease is also called “silent liver disease” because it may not have any noticeable symptoms.


After your last trip to the doctor, you likely heard a few familiar reminders: eat right, watch your weight and make time for exercise. Your doctor may sound like a broken record, but these healthy lifestyle choices become even more critical as you age — especially when it comes to your liver.

A healthy lifestyle plays a big role in preventing or managing fatty liver disease. While this disease can affect anyone at any age, people are more likely to develop it as they get older.

As part of our new liver health series, we’re taking a deep dive into fatty liver disease, how it affects your body and what you can do to prevent it as you age.

What is fatty liver disease?

Fatty liver disease is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a condition where you have too much fat in your liver. Over time, this excess fat can damage your liver and affect how it functions. If your liver doesn’t work correctly, your body has a hard time digesting food and removing waste.

But how much fat is too much? Typically, fat should only make up 5-10% of your liver’s weight. If you have more than that, you may have a fatty liver, also called steatosis.

Although it can lead to serious health problems, fatty liver disease may not cause any noticeable symptoms and often goes undetected. Most people discover they have fatty liver disease after having liver tests for another condition or unrelated symptom.

There are two main types of fatty liver disease: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcoholic fatty liver disease. Each type has different causes and risk factors, but both can lead to severe liver damage or liver disease if left untreated.

Alcoholic fatty liver disease

Alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by heavy and prolonged drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines heavy drinking as 15 drinks or more per week for men and eight drinks or more per week for women. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1½ ounces of 80-proof alcohol.

Your liver processes the alcohol you drink, but that process can also create harmful substances. The more you drink, the more harmful substances your liver produces. These substances can eventually damage liver tissue and create scarring in the liver (fibrosis). Extensive scarring is known as cirrhosis of the liver, which slows down liver function and can eventually lead to liver failure or liver cancer.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFLD, is not related to heavy alcohol use. There are two kinds of NAFLD:

  • Simple fatty liver or nonalcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) – If you have simple fatty liver, it means you have excess fat in your liver, but it’s not causing damage or inflammation. In most cases, this type of fatty liver does not lead to serious health problems or liver disease.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) – NASH is a condition where you have excess fat in your liver that’s causing inflammation and liver cell damage. NASH can eventually lead to liver scarring, which can increase your risk for cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Am I at risk for fatty liver disease?

While it’s clear that alcoholic fatty liver disease is caused by excess drinking, doctors don’t know what causes NAFLD. However, researchers have found that you may be more at risk for NAFLD if you:

  • Are obese
  • Have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes
  • Have high levels of fat in the blood, including high “bad” cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) and high triglycerides
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are middle-aged or older
  • Have certain metabolic disorders, including metabolic syndrome

How do you treat fatty liver disease?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific medicine or procedure for treating fatty liver disease — yet. Researchers are looking into whether existing diabetes medicines or specific vitamins can help, but there are no approved medical treatments.

While there’s no silver bullet for treating fatty liver disease, healthy lifestyle changes can reduce its effects and prevent serious health problems. In some cases, you may need to work with your doctor to stop or adjust medicines that may be causing NAFLD.

If you have alcoholic fatty liver disease, cutting out alcohol is the most important treatment. Your doctor can help you find a safe and effective way to quit drinking and provide references to therapists or support groups if needed.

What can I do to lower my risk for fatty liver disease?

Regardless of your age, there’s plenty you can do to help reduce your risk for fatty liver disease. Keeping healthy habits and having regular communication with your doctor can go a long way for your liver health.

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity is a significant risk factor for many serious health conditions, including fatty liver disease; research has shown that NAFLD is found in 30-90% of obese people. Your doctor can make safe, healthy recommendations for losing weight if needed.

  • Exercise regularly: A regular exercise routine can do wonders for your health and your liver. It can help you lose weight and improve your cholesterol levels, ultimately influencing how much fat is in your liver. The American Heart Association (AHA) says most adults should try to get a combination of moderate exercise, vigorous aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening exercises. While you may not be able to work out like you did in your 20s, there are plenty of ways to stay active as you age.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet: Like exercise, healthy eating plays a vital role in your overall health, including lowering your risk for fatty liver disease. Because high cholesterol is a risk factor for fatty liver disease, you may want to incorporate a few cholesterol-lowering foods with healthy fats, fiber and antioxidants. This includes staying away from fried foods, sugar, salt and undercooked shellfish.
  • Manage your medications: Uncontrolled diabetes, blood pressure or heart disease can increase your risk for fatty liver disease. That’s why it’s crucial to stay on any medicines that your doctor prescribes for these conditions. If you have questions or concerns about managing your medications, talk to your doctor before making any changes.
  • Keep up with regular screenings and tests: Fatty liver disease is also called “silent liver disease” because it may not have any noticeable symptoms. With that in mind, make sure you maintain regular check-ups with your doctor.


Find a doctor

Keeping a healthy lifestyle is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk for fatty liver disease. But maintaining a good relationship with your doctor is also critical. Your doctor can help you manage risk factors and look out for concerning signs and symptoms that you may overlook. 

If you want to learn more about lowering your risk for fatty liver disease, talk with your doctor. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory or search for one in your area.

What will you do to lower your risk for fatty liver disease? Share your tips and motivations with us @providence. #Aging #Health

Related resources

Four strategies for managing your medications

A proactive health guide for people 40+

Low-impact exercises to stay fit as you age

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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