Jake Watters is a typical teenager who loves listening to music,playing video games and annoying his parents. But he also faces ahealth challenge that used to only be seen in much olderpeople.
Fatty liver disease, a condition historically diagnosed inadults with diabetes or alcoholism, is increasingly diagnosed inobese children and teens.
About 6 million young people in the U.S. have the chroniccondition that can lead to liver scarring, inflammation andfailure. Nearly all of them are overweight.
Doctors believe that the rise in fatty liver disease to about 17percent of children mirrors the increase in childhood obesity,which affects nearly the same percentage.
Dr. Ajay Jain, a St. Louis University pediatrician, isrecruiting patients for two pediatric fatty liver disease studiesat the medical school. Children can turn the disease around in itsearly stages, he said.
“It is generally thought that if you do consistent lifestylechanges, the (fatty liver disease) is reversible,” Jain said.
The liver helps the body digest food, fight infections andfilter toxins in the blood. Once fibrosis, or scarring, developsthe damage can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and cancer and alsoraises a patient’s risk of heart disease and death. In severecases, liver transplant becomes the only treatment option.
Doctors usually find out a patient has fatty liver disease whenthey complain of pain, fatigue or in serious cases, jaundice. Bloodwork can also indicate some problems with liver function inpatients with no symptoms. An ultrasound can show fat deposits onthe liver and a biopsy can confirm any scarring or cirrhosis.
Jake, who lives in Alton, is enrolled in a study at SLU tounderstand how the disease progresses in young people and howlifestyle changes might improve their condition. He’s startedeating healthier, reading food labels and avoiding ingredients thatrhyme with “gross” ” sucrose, fructose, dextrose ” that indicatesugar content. His mom packs a healthy lunch each day instead ofthe nachos, fries and pasta he could buy at school.
Jake’s goal is to avoid the stomach reduction surgery that bothhis parents received. He also hopes to beat his predisposition todiabetes, which runs in the family.
It won’t be easy for Jake, 16, whose allergies to grasses andtree pollen make it hard to exercise outdoors. He’s alreadycompleted his three required semesters of physical education atAlton High School. And his heavy homework load ” which includesadvanced German and physics ” plus computer