Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about kidney disease? My mother died from kidney failure a few years ago at age 76, and I’m curious what my risks are and what I can do to protect myself.
Anyone who has a family history of kidney disease, or who has high blood pressure or diabetes is at risk and needs to have their kidneys tested. Here’s what you should know and some tips to help you take care of your kidneys.
More than 26 million Americans currently have chronic kidney disease (when the kidneys can’t properly do their job of cleaning toxins and wastes from the blood), and millions more are at risk of developing it, yet most people don’t realize it. That’s because kidney disease develops very slowly over many years before any symptoms arise. But left untreated, the disease can eventually require people to spend hours hooked up to a dialysis machine or get a kidney transplant. Even mild kidney problems can double a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as cause anemia and bone disease.
The reason kidney disease has become so widespread today is because of the rise of obesity, type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which all strain the kidneys.
Another factor is the increasing number of people who take multiple medications, which can overtax the organs. People over age 60 are especially vulnerable both because they tend to take more drugs, and because kidney function normally declines somewhat with age.
To help you rate your risk of kidney disease, the National Kidney Foundation has a quick, online quiz you can take at kidney.org.
Because kidney disease has no early symptoms, the only way to catch it before it advances is to have a simple blood and urine test by your doctor. So, if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, a family history of kidney disease, or are age 60 or older you need to get tested. African, Hispanic, Asian and Indian Americans, along with Pacific Islanders are also at increased risk.
If you’re diagnosed with kidney disease you need to know that there’s no cure, but there are steps you can take to help contain the damage, including:
Control your blood pressure: If you have high blood pressure, get it under 130/80. If you need medication to do it, ACE inhibitors and ARBs are good choices because of their proven ability to protect the kidneys.
Control your diabetes: If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible.
Change your diet: This usually means reducing the amount of protein and phosphorus you eat, and cutting back on sodium and possibly potassium. Your doctor can help you determine an appropriate eating plan, or you may want to talk to a dietitian. Also see myfoodcoach.kidney.org where you’ll find lots of kidney- friendly recipes and nutrition tips.
Watch your meds: Dozens of commonly used drugs can damage the kidneys, especially when taken in high doses over long periods—most notably NSAIDs like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and generic) and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn and generic). Herbal supplements can also be very dangerous. Talk to your doctor about all the prescription, over-the-counter and herbal products you take to identify potential problems and find alternatives.
Exercise and lose weight: If you’re overweight and inactive, start an aerobic fitness routine (walk, swim, cycle, etc.) that gets your heart pumping. This will help lower your blood pressure, control diabetes and help you lose excess weight, all of which will help your kidneys.
Quit smoking: If you smoke, quit. Heart disease becomes a much greater risk to the kidneys if you smoke. Smoking also doubles the rate of progression to end-stage renal failure.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.