When it comes to fatty liver disease, early diagnosis is key. In fact, a new German study shows health care costs for patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) can more than double over a five-year period if the illness is left unchecked, MedPage Today reports

Completed by researchers at the University of Magdeburg Medical School in Germany and presented at a press conference at the Liver Congress, the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL), the study tracked NAFLD/NASH patients following an initial diagnosis of compensated cirrhosis. Researchers found that total health care costs for those who progressed to end-stage liver disease within five years increased 169 percent; for those who did not, costs increased 132 percent. The spike in costs was largely the result of increased inpatient costs at hospitals.

Their research was based on the medical records of 800 compensated cirrhosis patients who were an average of 68 years old and diagnosed between 2011 and 2016. Comorbidities were common among the cohort. Around 80 percent of patients had hypertension, over half had type 2 diabetes and a little under half had cardiovascular disease or hyperlipidemia — unsurprising, given the links between obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease.

During the presentation, lead study author Ali Canbay, MD, noted that fatty liver disease is a common cause of compensated cirrhosis in Western countries. These patients often advance to end-stage liver disease before being diagnosed by a specialist. But until now, real-world data regarding the health care costs or outcomes of these patients had been limited.

Researchers concluded that early diagnosis is key for reducing the health care costs of people with NAFLD/NASH. The study shows that once these patients reach cirrhosis, it might be too late, since these individuals also face a significantly increased risk of mortality.