British Liver Trust wants doctors to test at-risk patients after random examinations show one in four have early damage
The government should introduce early screening for liver disease across the country, to stem the rising tide of death and damage caused mostly by heavy drinking, a charity says.
The British Liver Trust wants GPs to ask their patients more questions about their lifestyle and offer a simple test for liver function – as they do for patients with suspected high blood pressure. Their call to the government to do more follows random testing in shopping centres that showed more than one in four people had early indications of damage.
Liver disease is particularly dangerous because it usually goes undetected until it is too late and the patient may die without a transplant.
“In the last five years, we have seen a real decrease in the age of death from liver disease,” said Andrew Langford, chief executive of the trust.
“It used to be in the 60s, now it is 58, and by 2020 we would expect it to be about 50 if it follows this trajectory. Ten years ago, it was very unusual to see a 30-year-old in a liver unit awaiting a transplant. Now it is not uncommon.”
Drinking can cause serious liver problems, including cirrhosis and cancer, but few people realise that lack of exercise and carrying too much weight is also a serious issue. “Lack of exercise and overweight builds up the fat in your liver,” said Langford. “You are increasing he pressure on your liver. These two things combined can create cirrhosis. It is a myth that cirrhosis is always caused by alcohol.”
Most liver disease is caused by excessive alcohol consumption, but in the US it is principally caused by being overweight. By 2020, the pattern could reverse in Britain.
Langford said the government should take action to increase screening and educate the public following the chief medical officer’s annual report in November, which called for action on liver disease.
The report, by Dame Sally Davies, said the UK was one of the few countries in the European Union where deaths were rising instead of falling.
Between 2000 and 2009, deaths from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in the under-65s increased by about 20%, while they fell by the same amount in most EU countries. Alcohol-related admissions to hospital more than doubled between 2002-03 and 2009-10, from 510,200 to 1,057,000.
Alcohol abuse cost the NHS £2.7bn a year in 2006/07.
The British Liver Trust is running a “love your liver” campaign to encourage the public to change behaviour. Its three recommendations are: take two to three days off alcohol each week, get regular exercise and cut down on sugar and fat.