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Love your liver to live longer

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The liver is a hardy organ but it's prone to abuse. Most people think their livers can cope with regular alcohol consumption, fatty food and a sedentary lifestyle, but liver disease is on the rise in the UK and its sufferers are getting younger.

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Binge drinking can cause liver disease

In the last 30 years, eight times as many men and seven times as many women aged between 35 and 44 have died from chronic liver disease. Cheap and readily available alcohols, as well as the rise in consumption of fast food are two factors the British Liver Trust has blamed for the rise of the disease, which the Britain's Chief Medical Officer has said is among the top five most serious health issues facing the population.

WHAT IS THE LIVER?

The liver sits on the right hand side of the body, resting underneath the rib cage. The heaviest organ in the body, the liver performs over 500 vital functions, and is the body's natural processor. It plays a major role in metabolism and has a number of functions including detoxification. It produces bile, an alkaline compound which aids in digestion. Other functions include processing food from the intestine, controlling fat levels, breaking down food and turning it into energy, expelling toxins, manufacturing and regulating hormones, storing iron and other chemicals, cleaning the blood and controlling the level of fats and glucose in the blood. With such a lot of work to do, a healthy liver is paramount. Although the liver is the one organ in the body that can regenerate -- when liver disease comes, it often does without warning and damage is irreversible.

WHAT CAUSES LIVER DISEASE?

About half of all liver disease is alcohol related, a third is caused by viral hepatitis and the remainder due to immune system dysfunction, metabolic disorders and inherited diseases. But the dramatic rise in instances of liver disease can be largely blamed on the increase in binge drinking.

According to the British Liver Trust: "Consistent heavy drinking can lead to what is known as a fatty liver in which the liver cells become engorged with excess fat, more seriously an inflamed liver, alcoholic hepatitis or, most seriously, a permanently scarred and damaged liver, cirrhosis. In general the more you drink, and the greater the frequency and duration of heavy drinking, the more likely you are to develop cirrhosis."

Medical experts have warned that Britain will be gripped by a liver disease epidemic within 15 years because of the prevalence of binge drinking. Alcohol costs half of what it did 25 years ago, with UK households spending nearly £42 million in 2005 on alcohol. Licensing hours have been extended giving people more opportunity to drink for longer.

Dr Andrew Holt, of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, who conducted the live tests for a Channel 4 documentary on the subject said: "Alcohol is too freely available. It's available to those who should not be drinking, and I think its cheapness these days means that it is actually available in quantities that previously people just could not afford to drink."

Alison Rogers the Chief Executive of the British Liver Trust said, "Everyday four people an hour are being admitted to hospital due to alcoholic liver disease. The fact that alcohol related admissions in England have gone up over 50 per cent since 1995/6 should be a matter of great alarm."

The increase in liver disease has become a political hot potato - should there be a further tax on alcohol to deter drinkers or will they drink regardless? Or would warnings on bottles of alcohol, similar to those found on cigarette packets help raise awareness? Without government coming in and imposing warning standards, it is up to the alcohol industry to self-regulate which has frustrated many health professionals who believe the alcohol industry's commercial concerns will outweigh any public health issues. Instead, it is up to drinkers to behave responsibly.

One of the issues, according to the British Liver Trust, is that we may not realise we are drinking too much. They say it's not just binge drinkers who are susceptible to liver disease: sharing a bottle of wine over dinner or having a couple of drinks after work may be harmful, too if the alcohol consumption is regular enough.

Obesity is also a culprit. Prevalent in the UK, the US and Australia, obesity is linked to diabetes, which can be connected to a build up of fat in the liver. Professor Chris Day a member of the Liver Trust advisory service and a specialist in liver disease said, "It's rare to treat someone with alcoholic liver disease who is not overweight or obese."

HOW CAN LIVER DISEASE BE PREVENTED?

Apart from watching your diet, weight and alcohol consumption, The British Liver Trust advise to get vaccinated against Hepatitis B, a form of liver disease. It causes inflammation of the liver making it more susceptible to cirrhosis and liver cancer, which is almost always fatal. Hepatitis B is transmitted through sexual contact, infected blood products and intravenous drug use.

Regular checkouts with your doctor and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also keep your liver healthy. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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