One in eight WA teenagers has signs of fatty liver disease, which Perth researchers say is linked to rising rates of obesity, genetic factors and whether children are breastfed as babies.

Gastroenterologist Oyekoya Ayonrinde, from the University of WA and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, said yesterday his study was the first of its kind to estimate the prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in Australian children and teenagers.

Due to present his findings at the Australian Gastroenterology Week conference in Sydney today, Dr Ayonrinde said the condition, which was related to insulin resistance and caused fatty inflammation of the liver, affected up to 30 per cent of adults and 13 per cent of children by the age of 17 in WA.

It was considered one of the most rapidly increasing liver problems in the Western world and was closely related to type 2 diabetes and obesity.

His team has linked three variations of the gene called adiponectin specifically to fatty liver disease in male teenagers. Two increased the risk of the condition by three to four times, while the last variation reduced the risk by about a quarter.

“We also discovered that babies who were breastfed for at least six months were about 20 per cent less likely to develop the condition as teenagers, and those with the disease were generally heavier than those without it during early childhood,” Dr Ayonrinde said.

Though breastfeeding protected against the disease, a western diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars and lack of exercise increased the risk.

“Fatty liver disease is not a benign condition and it’s not something that happens over a few weeks or months but something that may have its origins in childhood,” he said.

“This study highlights the need for non-invasive tests to help us to learn who may be at risk early enough so that lifestyle changes can prevent the onset of liver disease.”