Fatty liver disease by itself is unlikely to cause sudden death. But some people with fatty liver disease may die from other underlying conditions.

The liver is your body’s primary detoxifying organ. It carries out many vital functions, including removing waste and bacteria from the bloodstream and breaking down fats.

But what happens if your liver starts accumulating its own fat? Can it continue to function? Can you die suddenly from fatty liver disease?

Let’s take a deeper look into how fatty liver disease can affect you.

For most people, fatty liver disease is highly unlikely to cause sudden death.

Fatty liver disease has a spectrum of severity, ranging from simple fatty liver to the most severe form, known as cirrhosis. Untreated cirrhosis leads to liver failure — and thus death — but cirrhosis is not typically considered a “sudden” death.

Overall, there’s some evidence suggesting there are potential mechanisms for sudden death in people with fatty liver disease. However, more research into this topic is needed to determine whether this is true and what the risks are.

Still, many experts assert that fatty liver in itself is not an adequate stand-alone cause of death. In fact, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is typically a sign of an underlying disorder, such as diabetes, which may be the primary cause of death.

Just as your body can accumulate excess fat, so can your liver.

A healthy liver contains a small amount of fat. Fatty liver disease, or steatosis, occurs when too much fat accumulates, reaching about 5% to 10% of your liver’s weight.

There are two primary types of fatty liver disease: nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and alcohol-related fatty liver disease. Heavy alcohol consumption causes alcohol-related fatty liver disease.

NAFLD is very common, affecting 25% of the population worldwide, while alcohol-related fatty liver disease affects up to 2.5% of the general population.

What is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)?

NAFLD is a fatty liver disease that’s not caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Rather, it’s associated with metabolic syndrome. Conditions like obesity, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes worsen it.

A diet high in sugar and processed carbohydrates as well as a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of NAFLD in both children and adults.

In general, fatty liver disease falls into various levels of severity (from mild to severe):

  • Simple fatty liver, or steatosis: This is an abnormal but largely harmless buildup of fat. When people refer to NAFLD, this is generally what they’re referring to.
  • Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): This includes extra fat plus signs of inflammation and liver cell damage. NASH is linked to insulin resistance. Many experts consider it to be the liver component of metabolic syndrome. About 1.5% to 6.5% of adults in the United States have NASH.
  • Fibrosis: Thickening or scarring of liver tissue has occurred.
  • Cirrhosis: When extensive scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, the liver stops functioning. This is the severe, late stage of liver disease.

No. Most people with fatty liver disease are unaffected by it. You can prevent the early stages of fatty liver disease and even reverse it with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol or losing weight.

However, for some people with the condition, fatty liver disease worsens over time. Untreated cirrhosis eventually leads to liver failure or liver cancer.

What are the end stages of fatty liver disease?

The term “end stage liver disease” refers to an advanced stage of cirrhosis.

In this condition, hard scar tissue has replaced much of the healthy liver tissue, leading to a significant loss of liver function. Cirrhosis can also lead to liver cancer.

What is the main cause of death in people with NAFLD?

When people die from early stage fatty liver disease, it’s often due to an underlying condition, such as cardiovascular disease. However, if you have late stage liver disease, it’s often the primary cause of death.

A 2019 study looked at NAFLD-related death data from 2007 to 2016 in the United States. Researchers found that cirrhosis was the top cause-specific death, followed by cardiovascular disease.

There’s no medication specifically for fatty liver disease. The early stages of the disease are typically managed or reversed by avoiding alcohol, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and exercising.

However, your doctor may prescribe medications to manage any conditions that contribute to fatty liver disease, such as:

A blood test showing high levels of liver enzymes is a sign that your liver is distressed.

To confirm a diagnosis, your doctor may order:

  • an ultrasound or CT scan to get an image of your liver
  • a liver biopsy (tissue sample) to see how far the condition has advanced
  • a FibroScan (a specialized ultrasound) to determine the level of fat and scar tissue in the liver (this is sometimes used instead of a liver biopsy)

Once fatty liver disease reaches the severity level of cirrhosis, the only treatment is a liver transplant. However, this treatment is not guaranteed: The supply of suitable donors is small compared with the number of people who need a liver transplant.

Fatty liver disease has a spectrum of severity, ranging from simple fatty liver disease to cirrhosis.

In the early stages, fatty liver disease is unlikely to cause sudden death. If death occurs, it’s likely from another underlying condition.

Over time, untreated fatty liver disease that leads to cirrhosis can cause death via liver failure, but this is not usually a sudden death.

If you have obesity or regularly drink a lot of alcohol, consider getting a liver function test to test your liver’s health. The good news is that with lifestyle changes, early stage fatty liver disease is treatable and even reversible.