When it comes to getting older, you probably think about the more obvious changes that happen in your body, such as those that occur in your eyes, muscular system, and ears – but, interestingly, there are huge impacts of aging on the liver as well!
Given that your liver is without a doubt one of the most impressive and important organs within your entire body, these changes really can be quite detrimental to your health!
What Does the Liver Do?
The liver is one of the largest organs within the entire body. (It weighs in at a whopping 3 pounds in the average adult.)
Found in the upper-right section of the abdomen, the liver has two large sections, known as the right and left lobes. They are separated by a large band of connective tissue that attaches the organ to the abdomen.
Each of these lobes are comprised of thousands upon thousands of smaller liver units known as lobules, which work together to carry out the liver’s main roles within the body. These include:
- Working with the gallbladder to produce bile – a key compound that assists in the digestion of fats within the gastrointestinal tract.
- Producing blood clotting factors used to regulate blood clotting if you are injured.
- Detoxifying the blood from harmful chemicals, toxins, drugs and other substances.
- Converting excess blood glucose into glycogen, storing it for energy use at a later date.
- Producing glucose for energy metabolism out of other nutrients (such as amino acids) during times of severe energy deficiency (AKA starving), through a process known as gluconeogenesis.
- Producing good HDL blood cholesterol, and breaking down bad LDL cholesterol from the blood.
Clearly, when it comes to health and function, the liver is really, really important.
What Accelerates Aging of the Liver?
It is important to point out that the liver will experience declines in function as we age irrespective of how well we look after ourselves. This is because, over time, your cells — all your cells — become worse at doing their jobs in your body.
This break down of your cellular function is caused by the fact that, over time, your cells acquire minor mutations during their divisions (think of them as minor production errors). As these errors accumulate, you see declines in the cells’ ability to function, which, in turn, leads to declines in the whole body’s ability to function. (You can read more about these processes by clicking here).
This a somewhat unfortunate and, more or less, unavoidable part of aging.
But, that doesn’t mean that these changes are immune to outside influences. Your cells don’t simply gain mutations at the same rate. They can mutate more quickly, or slowly, depending on your lifestyle and environment.
In fact, researchers know there are several specific things that can expedite the build-up of mutations in the liver, accelerating liver aging. Let’s check these out in more detail.
Increases in Metabolic Stress and the Liver
As previously mentioned, one of the primary roles of the liver is to convert glucose into glycogen and to remove excess bad cholesterol from your blood. If your diet is extremely high in either simple sugars or saturated fat (or both), it can place the liver under excessive and unnecessary stress.
Such stress can lead to liver damage and, therefore, accelerate liver aging. This means that it is definitely in your best interest to avoid nasty junk food as much as possible (obvious advice, I know!).
Exposure to Toxins and the Liver
In a similar vein to the process described above, the liver also plays a key role in removing harmful toxins from your body. If you are exposed to large amounts toxins and chemicals over your lifetime, this can place your liver under a heap of stress and speed up age-related declines in function. It is important to note that these toxins include things you likely associate with toxicity — such as alcohol, recreational drugs and pesticides — but also things you likely don’t — such as prescription medications or cleaning products.
Impacts of Aging on the Liver: What Happens to Your Liver as You Get Older?
In the above section, we touched on things that accelerate liver aging. But what are the signs of liver aging in the first place? Since the liver has so many important functions, it is difficult to predict all the signs of declining liver function. Some of the most common and most important changes you commonly see, however, include:
- A reduced ability to detoxify the blood
- Reduced blood clotting ability
- A loss of normal metabolic regulation
Let’s look at the effects these changes in liver function have on your total body health as you get older.
The Aging Liver and Detoxification
As you age, and the cells of the liver become less efficient at their jobs, you see a decline your liver’s ability to remove harmful chemicals and toxins from the blood. Given that many of these chemicals can directly interact with your cells, this can have profound effects throughout your body.
For example, decreased detoxification processes in the liver can cause a decline in cognitive function and mental acuity. While the exact mechanism behind this interaction remains largely unknown, researchers think that toxins that make it past your liver eventually end up in your brain. Once in your brain, they interact with key brain nerves, altering their function. In doing so, they inhibit neurotransmitter production, leading to inhibitions in mental capacity.
Additionally, many of the chemicals poorly removed from your body when your liver ages act as mutagens in your cells. This means that they can cause cellular mutations in cells throughout your entire body!
These mutations can cause you to experience accelerated aging in more of your organs. You could start experiencing symptoms such as altered eyesight, decline in skin health and quality, poor bone strength, worsening of your brain health and function, and even an increased risk of age-related diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The Aging Liver and the Blood
As liver function deteriorates, so does its ability to regulate blood clotting. This can lead to large variations in blood viscosity. Your blood can become either too thin, or, more frequently, too thick. Having blood that is too thick can be very dangerous for your health.
You see, if your blood becomes too thick, it can become much more difficult to move around the body. In response to this, your heart has to work much harder to pump oxygenated blood to your working tissues. This increased stress on your heart can lead not only to an increase in blood pressure (as more pressure is required to pump this thick blood), but also reduce the amount of oxygen transported to the body’s tissues, which can lead to declines in cell health throughout your entire body.
To make matters worse, overly-thick blood can cause issues with your blood flow, causing it to slow down significantly. When blood flow is slow, it is at a much greater risk of clotting. An increased risk of a blood clot increases your risk of blood-clot-related heart attacks and strokes!
The Aging Liver and Metabolic Regulation
Finally, as the capacity of your liver declines, you also see a decline in metabolic regulation.
The Aging Liver and Glucose Metabolism
One of the most common metabolic malfunctions caused by a poorly functioning liver is an overactivation of gluconeogenesis, with your liver unnecessarily and uncontrollably releasing far too much glucose into your blood. This, naturally, leads to chronically elevated blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, long-term blood sugar increases also drive up the secretion of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for getting all that sugar out of the blood and into the body’s tissues for use (or storage).
When insulin secretion becomes too high for too long, the body becomes overwhelmed, can no longer respond to insulin the way it is supposed to and enters a state called insulin resistance. Once your body cannot respond properly to insulin, you have no way to get sugar out of your blood. This drives your blood sugar levels higher, forces your body to secrete more insulin and makes your insulin resistance worse. This vicious cycle puts you squarely on the path towards developing type 2 diabetes.
The Aging Liver and Fat Metabolism
In addition to the changes in your sugar metabolism, changes liver aging can mess with your fat metabolism, as well. As I mentioned above, your liver is responsible for breaking down LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol found within the blood. LDL cholesterol is “bad” because tends to stay within the blood indefinitely, where it can eventually end up stuck in the walls of your arteries, causing them to narrow (a condition known as atherosclerosis).
This narrowing makes it much more difficult for the heart to move blood around the body. It puts your heart under excessive stress, and increases your risk of heart disease and cardiovascular dysfunction. When your liver loses its ability to properly remove LDL from your blood, this whole process can ramp up, putting your arteries, heart and brain at serious risk.
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Take Home Message
The aging process takes a serious toll on the liver. If you combine this with a poor diet and excessive toxin exposure, you can see rapid declines in liver function.
Aging can drive a decline in the liver’s ability to detoxify the body, resulting in cognitive dysfunction and a deterioration in global health. It also makes your liver less able to regulate blood clotting factors, resulting in increased blood pressure and risk of stroke or heart attack. Finally, aging makes it difficult for your liver to regulate your metabolism. This can result in high blood sugar, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and/or heart disease.