Background & Aims
Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common chronic liver disease in the United States. The etiology is believed to be multi-factorial with a substantial genetic component; however, the heritability of NAFLD is undetermined. Therefore, a familial aggregation study was performed to test the hypothesis that NAFLD is highly heritable.
Overweight children with biopsy-proven NAFLD and overweight children without NAFLD served as probands. Family members were studied including magnetic resonance imaging to quantify liver fat fraction. Fatty liver was defined as a liver fat fraction ≥ 5%. Etiologies for fatty liver other than NAFLD were excluded. Narrow-sense heritability estimates for fatty liver (dichotomous) and fat fraction (continuous) were calculated using variance components analysis adjusted for covariate effects.
Fatty liver was present in 17% of siblings and 37% of parents of overweight children without NAFLD. Fatty liver was significantly more common in siblings (59%) and parents (78%) of children with NAFLD. Liver fat fraction was correlated with body mass index (BMI), although the correlation was significantly stronger for families of children with NAFLD than those without NAFLD. Adjusted for age, sex, race, and BMI, heritability of fatty liver was 1.000 and of liver fat fraction 0.386.
Family members of children with NAFLD should be considered at high risk for NAFLD. These data suggest that familial factors are a major determinant of whether an individual has NAFLD. Studies examining the complex relations between genes and environment in the development and progression of NAFLD are warranted.