Patients with Type 2 diabetes are at a particular risk of being struck down by non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, researchers said. Known as the “silent disease”, NAFLD is the most common cause of liver problems around the world. It is estimated that up to one in three people in the UK is in the early stages, where there are small amounts of fat in the liver.
The condition is caused by a gradual build-up of fat and is usually seen in patients who are overweight or obese, who may also suffer from Type 2 diabetes.
Poor diet is a leading cause of the common disease.
For most sufferers, NAFLD is a benign condition, but in about one in six cases it can develop into non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
This more aggressive form of the disease can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer.
A study of 18 million people across Europe found NAFLD or NASH sufferers were more likely to have Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Scientists found NAFLD and NASH patients with Type 2 diabetes were twice as likely to develop aggressive liver problems such as cancer or cirrhosis than those without diabetes.
Researchers examined the health records of patients from the UK, Netherlands, Italy and Spain.
The study was observational and therefore could not prove that having diabetes caused the difference in risk.
But Naveed Sattar, from the University of Glasgow, said diabetics should be closely monitored to ensure liver disease is caught early.
She said: “Doctors treating patients with diabetes already have a lot to check on – eyes, kidneys, heart risks – but these results remind us that we should not neglect the liver, nor forget to consider the possibility of NASH.
“They also remind us that perhaps more efforts are needed to help our patients with diabetes lose weight and cut alcohol.”
The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, also found that many patients with cirrhosis and liver cancer were diagnosed at a late stage, when chances of survival are lower.
Lead researcher Dr William Alazawi, from Queen Mary University of London, said: “The public, doctors and policy-makers need to be aware of this silent disease and strategies need to be put in place to tackle the root causes and avoid progression to life-threatening stages.
“People living with diabetes are at increased risk of more advanced, life-threatening stages of disease, suggesting that we should be focusing our efforts on educating and preventing liver disease in diabetes patients.”