5 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Developing Kidney Disease
Kidney disease, in which the roughly fist-sized, bean-shaped organs can’t filter blood properly, causes about 48,000 deaths annually, according to the latest national statistics – making it the ninth leading cause of death in the “Part of the reason why prevention is so important is almost nobody realizes they have kidney disease until it’s severe, because kidney disease is largely silent,” says Dr. Jamie Dwyer, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and director of the Vanderbilt Nephrology Clinical Trials Center.
What’s at stake.
Detectable through lab blood and urine testing, kidney disease can progress to kidney failure before a person sees a specialist, or nephrologist, to treat it. “Those are the very people who may end up on dialysis and need a kidney transplant,” Dwyer says. And, he notes, there’s another serious danger: Having kidney disease increases a person’s risk for heart disease, “So that’s all [the more] reason why preventing the development of kidney disease is so important,” Dwyer says.
Assess your risks – including for diabetes.
Though certain factors like genetic risk can’t be changed, many other contributors to kidney disease can be addressed. “Diabetes is the No. 1 cause of kidney disease in America,” Dwyer says; it accounts for 44 percent of new cases, according to the National Kidney Foundation. “High blood sugar itself is toxic to the filtering cells in the kidney,” Dwyer says. Even prediabetes – in which a person is at higher risk for developing full-blown diabetes – can raise one’s risk of developing kidney disease. So experts say it’s important to keep blood sugar under control to prevent diabetes and manage the chronic condition properly if already diagnosed.
Be heart healthy.
Along with high blood sugar, hypertension and high cholesterol round out the “big three” risk factors contributing to the risk of developing kidney disease, says Dr. Matthew Weir, an attending physician and head of nephrology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. A common thread is that the same factors that can plague one’s cardiovascular system also tax the kidneys. “Although we think of the kidneys as an organ, they are actually comprised of specialized capillaries or blood vessels,” Freedman explains. So experts say if you do right by your heart – whether adopting a heart-healthy diet or lowering blood pressure and reducing cholesterol to recommended levels – you’re helping ensure your kidneys function properly.
Not all risks can be avoided.
It’s important to know your family history for kidney disease, which can play a role in risk, along with race and ethnicity. For nearly 40 percent of African-Americans with severe kidney disease, the development of the disease results from changes in a single gene called APOL1, says Dr. Barry Freedman, a professor of internal medicine and chief of nephrology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He notes the majority of cases of kidney disease caused by variants in the gene encoding apolipoprotein L1, or APOL1, were errantly blamed on high blood pressure. Those with severe kidney disease require dialysis or a kidney transplant to perform functions a healthy kidney would, like filtering waste from blood.
Be careful about chronically popping pills.
Certain medications, including over-the-counter painkillers called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs – such as Advil, ibuprofen or Motrin – can raise a person’s risk of developing kidney disease. “We see that commonly people who take those medications chronically without the supervision of a doctor developed lower kidney function because of that,” says Dr. Kevin Regner, chief of nephrology at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Medications called proton-pump inhibitors that treat acid reflux and peptic ulcer disease may affect kidney function as well if taken chronically. Ask your doctor about all medications, prescribed or OTC, and consider the effect any may have on the kidneys, Regner says.
Stay up on needed medical care.
Many medical conditions can raise the risk of kidney disease, including chronic viral infections such as HIV and hepatitis C. “We pay very careful attention to urologic diseases like kidney stones [and] frequent urinary tract infections, and we make sure they’re evaluated and properly treated, so they don’t lead to kidney failure,” Freedman says. “Usually they don’t, and if they’re properly treated at an early stage, they won’t.” He emphasizes the importance of routine medical exams to ensure prostate health for men and gynecologic health for women, since issues ranging from prostate enlargement to tumors in the uterus, cervix or ovaries, or anything that can block urine flow – if left untreated – can affect kidney function.
Searching for another reason to stamp out that bad habit once and for all? Still want more motivation to never pick it up? Look no further: Smoking is associated with a higher risk of developing kidney disease in a number of potential ways. “It could be that it directly damages the kidney,” Dwyer says. “It causes our blood vessels to not behave normally in response to high blood pressure, and it’s associated with higher blood pressure. So there are many reasons why quitting smoking has potential benefit for [preventing] the development of kidney disease.” What’s more, it’s heart healthy to kick the habit. So you’ll be taking on three more top killers – heart disease and stroke plus, of course, cancer.