The risk of incident extrahepatic cancers is higher in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease than obesity – A longitudinal cohort study

Alina M. Allen, Stephen B. Hicks, Kristin C. Mara, Joseph J. Larson, Terry M. Therneau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Background & Aims: Cancer is a major cause of death in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Obesity is a risk factor for cancers; however, the role of NAFLD in this association is unknown. We investigated the effect of NAFLD versus obesity on incident cancers. Methods: We identified all incident cases of NAFLD in a US population between 1997-2016. Individuals with NAFLD were matched by age and sex to referent individuals from the same population (1:3) on the index diagnosis date. We ascertained the incidence of cancer after index date until death, loss to follow-up or study end. NAFLD and cancer were defined using a code-based algorithm with high validity and tested by medical record review. The association between NAFLD or obesity and cancer risk was examined using Poisson regression. Results: A total of 4,722 individuals with NAFLD (median age 54, 46% male) and 14,441 age- and sex-matched referent individuals were followed for a median of 8 (range 1–21) years, during which 2,224 incident cancers occurred. NAFLD was associated with 90% higher risk of malignancy: incidence rate ratio (IRR) = 1.9 (95% CI 1.3–2.7). The highest risk increase was noted in liver cancer, IRR = 2.8 (95% CI 1.6–5.1), followed by uterine IRR = 2.3 (95% CI 1.4–4.1), stomach IRR = 2.3 (95% CI 1.3–4.1), pancreas IRR = 2.0 (95% CI 1.2–3.3) and colon cancer IRR = 1.8 (95% CI 1.1–2.8). In reference to non-obese controls, NAFLD was associated with a higher risk of incident cancers (IRR = 2.0, 95% CI 1.5–2.9), while obesity alone was not (IRR = 1.0, 95% CI 0.8–1.4). Conclusions: NAFLD was associated with increased cancer risk, particularity of gastrointestinal types. In the absence of NAFLD, the association between obesity and cancer risk is small, suggesting that NAFLD may be a mediator of the obesity-cancer association. Lay summary: We studied the incidence of malignancies in a community cohort of adults with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in reference to age- and sex-matched adults without NAFLD. After 21 years of longitudinal follow-up, NAFLD was associated with a nearly 2-fold increase in the risk of developing cancers, predominantly of the liver, gastrointestinal tract and uterus. The association with increased cancer risk was stronger in NAFLD than obesity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1229-1236
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of hepatology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2019


  • Epidemiology
  • NASH
  • Natural history
  • Outcomes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hepatology


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