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June 13, 2006 > Preventing Liver Disease - A Healthy Lifestyle is Key

Preventing Liver Disease - A Healthy Lifestyle is Key

Protecting the liver is critical to maintaining a healthy life. As the largest internal organ in the body, it plays an important role in the digestive system, serving as an internal chemical power plant and filtering mechanism. When abused, it can lead to serious health problems or even death.

According to the American Liver Foundation, more than 25 million people across the country are afflicted with liver-related diseases each year. As the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, about 27,000 die annually from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis. The good news is that liver disease can often be prevented or treated with lifestyle changes and medications.

Generally, a combination of factors leads to the development of chronic liver disease. The most common cause of the disease is long-term excessive alcohol intake, combined with poor nutrition.

"The other common causes of liver disease include hepatitis B and hepatitis C," says Dr. Annamalai Veerappan, a gastroenterologist with Washington Medical Group in Fremont. "These viruses can be very damaging to the liver if untreated."

The liver converts food into stored energy and other chemicals that are necessary for life. The liver also produces immune chemicals to control infection, and remove germs from the blood. It also makes bile to help absorb fats and vitamins, while making proteins that regulate blood clotting.

When abused, the liver tissue starts to break down. As the liver heals, normal cells are damaged and replaced by scar tissue, which interferes with proper functions. When this occurs, it's called cirrhosis of the liver. As if that isn't bad enough, it can also lead to cancer.

"Cirrhosis is the worst problem," says Veerappan. "Some of the liver cells may still function to keep things going smoothly, and many patients don't realize they have such a serious disease."

The leading cause of cirrhosis is excessive alcohol consumption. Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol puts a lot of stress on the liver to filter toxins out of the blood. "One drink a day is okay. Remember that one glass of wine is equal to one can of beer, which is equal to one shot of whiskey," adds Veerappan.  "If someone drinks five or six drinks a day, then it becomes a problem, and binge drinking on weekends is also a problem."

The hepatitis B and C viruses are the next most common causes of liver disease. It's estimated that more than five million Americans have hepatitis B or C, resulting in an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 deaths annually.

There are treatments for hepatitis B infection and some medications helps change the virus from replicating to non-replicating. Drug treatments have eradicated the hepatitis C virus from the body in about 40 to 50 percent of the patients.

The highest risk for contracting hepatitis C is through a blood transfusion prior to 1990, before the blood supply was tested for the virus. 

"It's extremely rare to get it these days from a blood transfusion, because all the blood is screened for hepatitis B and C," says Veerappan.

When drug treatments don't work, hepatitis infection is the most frequent reason for liver transplants.

"Liver transplants are successful and common for people who have an extremely serious decomposed liver," says Veerappan. Unfortunately, there aren't enough livers to meet demand. "Some patients just can't wait, and they end up dying," he said.

There are ways to lower the risk of developing liver disease. Some of the top prevention measures include low alcohol consumption, only taking medications when necessary, and getting vaccinated.

To learn more about liver health and disease prevention, visit the American Liver Foundation's website:

If you have a question about your health or want to know more about a recent diagnosis, Washington Hospital's Community Health Resource Library is a great resource for finding all kinds of health-related information.  New books are arriving every month in the library, which is open to the public six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. Located on the first floor of Washington West (2500 Mowry Avenue), the library issues membership cards to anyone who wants to check out books, DVDs and tapes or download medical articles through the library's subscription service.

You can find a complete listing of our collection on our web site, For more information you can visit the web site or call (510) 494-7030.

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