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Liver disease will overtake heart disease as the biggest cause of early death by 2020, a major study predicts.

Alcohol and obesity are the main causes of liver issues and many of those dying are young or in middle-age.

The research estimated how many ‘years of working life’ would be lost to the two illnesses.

This is a measure of early death, likely to be pre-retirement age, and states the total number of years lost by adults who die early.

The study predicted that by 2020, liver disease will have overtaken heart disease with 80,000 working years lost annually.

By comparison there will be fewer than 76,000 working years lost to heart disease, and the number will continue to fall. Professor Nick Sheron, a liver expert from the University of Southampton involved in the research, said many deaths occurred in middle-aged adults.

He said: ‘These are young and middle-aged people. I did a ward round two to three weeks ago and a third of patients were under 40.’

The authors, whose study was published in the Lancet medical journal, urged the Government to follow Scotland in imposing a minimum price for alcohol.

Last month the Scottish Government announced that from May 2018, alcohol would be charged at a minimum price of 50p per unit.

Judi Rhys, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: ‘Many of us are putting our livers at risk from drinking too much alcohol.

‘The shocking numbers highlighted show that we are facing a liver disease crisis. There is an enormous cost benefit to addressing liver disease early and we should make sure that primary care practitioners have all of the tools and levers they need to enable early diagnosis and prevention.’

Katherine Brown, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies said: ‘This report confirms our fears that liver disease rates are continuing to rise in the UK. This means more people are suffering and dying prematurely from a largely preventable disease.

‘It is a tragedy for families and communities across the country and places a huge strain on our NHS and public purse.

‘The evidence on how to alleviate this burden is clear yet we have seen very little action from Government. Tackling cheap alcohol through the introduction of minimum unit pricing would make a huge difference to rates of liver disease and would save lives in our most deprived communities.’

It was reported that as well as affecting liver disease, obesity had been found to directly cause 18,000 cases of cancer a year in the UK. One in every 18 diagnoses was down to being overweight, according to researchers at Imperial College London.

Britain has the highest obesity rates in the EU – with experts warning that so many people were overweight that it was now considered the ‘new normal’.

Last week a study showed unhealthy lifestyles were also causing increased numbers of heart failures.

There were 190,798 new cases of heart failure in the UK in 2014 – up 12 percent in a decade. This is higher than the combined number of bowel, breast, lung and prostate cancer cases – 189,140 in 2014.