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Liver Health: How Age Changes the Rules

Liver health is important, but like many organs, it’s one than can be compromised as we age. Many patients we care for here in hospice care in San Mateo and elsewhere suffer from liver disease. In honor of National Liver Awareness Month this October, we will take the time to explore liver health and how age can affect it. More than 100 million people in this country have some form of liver disease, according to the American Liver Foundation.

When left untreated, liver disease can result in liver failure or liver cancer, and cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States. Cirrhosis increases the risk for having a stroke. While the human liver is not unaffected by the aging process, the changes it undergoes are relatively minor compared with other organs. Still, let’s take a look at how liver function declines in the elderly.

A Decline in Liver Function

As we age, liver function decreases, specifically the ability of the liver to metabolize certain substances, according to Merck Manual. Because drugs are not inactivated as rapidly in seniors as they are in young people, a drug dose that wouldn’t ordinarily have side effects in young people may bring dose-related side effects in seniors. This is why drug dosages often must be decreased in older people.

The liver’s ability to withstand stress goes on the decline. Substances posing a toxic threat to the liver may cause more damage in older adults than in younger people. In addition, repair of damaged liver cells tends to be much slower in older people.

ScienceDirect says one side effect of the aging process is a rise in the incidence of liver pathologies, which can compromise hepatic function in seniors. The NIH adds to this by saying aging is connected with the severity and poor prognosis of a variety of liver diseases, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, hepatitis C, alcoholic liver disease, and liver transplantation. Doctors and scientists are still striving to understand more about the molecular mechanism of aging and how it contributes to the development of a treatment that can effectively block the progression of age-induced liver diseases.

About the Liver

The liver is an organ and gland in the body, wedge-shaped, spongy and reddish-brown in color. It’s about the size of a football, but this will vary based on your height and weight, says the Cleveland Clinic. This essential organ performs hundreds of critical functions that sustain life. It’s also called a gland because it is responsible for making proteins and hormones that your body needs.

It weighs about three pounds in an adult, making the liver the largest internal organ. You’ll find it on the right side of the body, just under the ribs. Hepatic conditions result if there are issues related to the liver. Hepatologists are the medical professionals who specialize in the liver. The liver has a lot of important jobs. It is responsible for:

  • Cleaning toxins from the blood.
  • Removing old red blood cells.
  • Making bile, which helps the body digest food.
  • Metabolizing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
  • Producing substances to help your blood clot.
  • Regulating the amount of blood in your body.
  • Storing glycogen and vitamins your body can use later.

Conditions that can affect the liver include:

  • Diseases as a result of consuming too many toxins, such as alcohol and fatty foods.
  • Inherited diseases such as hemochromatosis (too much iron) or Wilson disease (too much copper).
  • Liver cancer.
  • Immune system disorders such as autoimmune hepatitis.
  • Viral infections, such as hepatitis A, B, and C.

All of these conditions can result in cirrhosis of the liver.

Risk factors for liver disease can include:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Blood transfusion
  • Tattoos or body piercings
  • Injecting drugs using shared needles
  • Exposure to other people’s blood and body fluids
  • Unprotected sex

Age is not necessarily a risk in and of itself for liver disease.

A Look at the Aging Liver

During the course of a lifetime, the human liver shrinks progressively by 20 to 40 percent, with an age-related decrease in liver volume. In the elderly, the appearance of the liver is known as “brown atrophy”, due to an accumulation of highly oxidized insoluble proteins call lipofuscin stored in hepatocytes, says Fight Aging. These accumulations are connected to chronic oxidative stress and inability to degrade damaged proteins. The biggest age-related change in liver function in seniors is a significant decrease in the liver’s regenerative capacity.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

To learn more about our hospice care program here at Pathways, led by a variety of compassionate and skilled professionals, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at 888-978-1306. We care for many patients that suffer from some kind of liver decline or disease, backed by experienced doctors and nurses who know how to manage these conditions and provide as much support for the patient and family as possible.