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Understanding Kidney Disease - A Silent Killer


One in three Americans is at risk for developing kidney disease, and high blood pressure and diabetes are two of the leading causes. Kidney disease is often referred to as a “silent killer” because a person can lose up to 90% of their kidney function before experiencing any outward symptoms.

Your kidneys are located on the left and right side of the spine, at the lowest level of the rib cage. Weighing approximately 4-6 ounces each, the human kidney is typically the size of an average fist. Regardless of their size, kidneys play an essential role in your overall health and are one of the most important organs in the human body. While most people are born with two kidneys, it’s possible to live with just one.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, your kidneys filter all of the blood circulating through your body every 30 minutes; filtering about 200 quarts of fluid every 24 hours. The main purpose of your kidneys is to remove excess water and toxins from your blood. While your kidneys regulate your body’s fluid levels, they also release hormones that regulate blood pressure, activate vitamin D, balance blood minerals, and release a hormone that directs the production of red blood cells.

Understanding your risk for developing kidney disease is very important; if you’re at increased risk, you may be able to detect the disease early. And like most health related issues, early detection allows more time for treatment and an increased likelihood for better outcome. According to the World Kidney Day Foundation, you are at higher risk of developing kidney disease if you:

  • Smoke
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Have diabetes
  • Are overweight
  • Have a family history of Kidney Disease
  • Are over the age of 50
  • Are of Asian, African, Hispanic, or Aboriginal origin

There are many causes of kidney disease.. Some kidney conditions are inherited and other causes are congenital, meaning a person is born with an abnormality that can affect the kidneys. Diabetes, high blood pressure, Glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidneys), Polycystic Kidney Disease, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, congenital disease, and drug interactions are some of the most common causes of kidney damage, which over time, can lead to kidney disease.

Because most people experience no symptoms until their kidney disease has reached the advanced stages, it’s important to talk to your doctor about your risk factors now, before you notice symptoms. According to the National Kidney Foundation, your kidney function can be tested using urine and blood samples. To learn more about these two simple tests, click here.

If kidney disease reaches the advanced stages, symptoms often include:

  • Swollen ankles, feet, hands, face, or abdomen
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Difficult or painful urination
  • Increased need to urinate (especially at night)
  • Blood in the urine or foamy urine

According to the Mayo Clinic, some types of kidney disease can be treated, depending on the cause. However, chronic kidney disease often has no cure. In general, treatment consists of measures to help control signs and symptoms, reduce complications, and slow progression of the disease.

Ultimately, prevention is your first line of defense against developing kidney disease. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can take the following steps to keep your kidneys healthy:

  • Stay hydrated
    Drinking enough water (4-6 glasses a day) helps to maintain proper kidney function. However, over-hydrating is not proven to help your kidneys do their job any better.
  • Eat a healthy diet
    Because most kidney diseases arise out of conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, eating a healthy diet can help prevent kidney disease by preventing their initial cause. Preventing diabetes and high blood pressure will help keep kidneys in good condition.
  • Exercise regularly
    Along with a healthy diet, regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and prevent conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes. If you’re new to exercising, take it slow as you start and work up to more intense activities. You don’t want to overexert yourself, putting a strain on your kidneys.
  • Quit smoking
    Smoking damages blood vessels, which can also decreases blood flow in the kidneys. This decrease blood flow keeps your kidneys from functioning at their optimal levels. Also, let’s not forget that smoking can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk of kidney cancer.
  • Be cautious of supplements and herbs
    Overuse of vitamins, supplements, and some herbs can be harmful to your kidneys. To make sure you’re using these items at their correct dosage, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider.
  • Take over-the-counter medications as directed
    Common over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or naproxen can cause kidney damage if taken too often over a long period of time. Using these medications for occasional pain is fine for an individual with healthy kidneys. However, if you’re taking these medications for chronic pain or arthritis, talk to your doctor. Monitoring kidney function or finding alternative ways or managing pain may be suggested.
  • Know your risk and get screened
    If you have a condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, talk to your doctor about performing a kidney function test as part of your routine care.

Ultimately, your kidney health is often dependent on your overall health. The most important thing that you can do for your kidneys is to take care of your body, which reduces your chances of developing a condition that could put a strain on your kidneys in the future.

To learn more about your kidneys, kidney disease, prevention, and so much more, visit the National Kidney Foundation website at

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