Liver disease

Last updated: Sunday, July 12, 2015

Liver disease is an important cause of illness. In the UK it is the only major cause of death to be on the increase, with a 20% rise in cases over the past decade. Liver disease is now the fifth biggest cause of premature death behind cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory disease. Mortality statistics show that for a city with a population of 350,000, then 450 people under 75 will die each year prematurely of cancer, 250 people from heart disease and stroke, 100 people from respiratory disease, and 50 people from liver disease.


Terminology associated with liver disease can be confusing. These are some of the common terms you may hear:

  1. Hepatocellular injury. Damage to the main cells of the liver (hepatocytes). Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) is a type of hepatocellular injury.

  2. Cholestasis. Disruption or stagnation of the bile flow through the bile ducts. Can occur within the liver (intrahepatic) or in the major bile ducts outside the liver (extrahepatic).

  3. Cirrhosis. Destruction of the liver cells. Damage is chronic and irreversible. The remaining functioning liver cells may be sufficient to maintain normal liver homeostasis (compensated liver disease), or may be insufficient to fulfil this role (decompensated liver disease). Decompensated disease is commonly manifested by ascites, jaundice and encephalopathy.

  4. Liver failure. Severe hepatic dysfunction manifested by symptoms such as encephalopathy and coagulopathy. May be acute and reversible, or may indicate end-stage cirrhosis.

  5. Liver impairment. This term is used to describe deterioration in liver function, which may range from mild to severe.
Many cases of liver disease are preventable, and attributable to alcohol, obesity, and viruses. About two-thirds of all alcohol-related deaths in the UK are attributed to its causing liver disease. The British Liver Trust reviews these causes of liver disease and gives advice on prevention.