Image from Allen Temple Baptist Church
March is National Kidney Month to raise awareness of kidney disease. Kidney disease is the ninth leading cause of death and affects 1 in 7 adults in this country. What is kidney disease and why does it matter?
The kidneys are an amazing filtration system. When in good working order, you don’t even know they are functioning (except when you need to urinate). Basically, they keep our electrolytes (sodium, potassium) in balance and let toxins and waste pass through to the urine. Damage to this system results in a disruption of the filtration. The electrolytes become out of balance and the toxins build up in the body. The other organs cannot do their job if they are loaded with toxins or too much potassium. Damage can be from a sudden problem, such as going into shock, but typically occurs over years from other diseases. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the most common causes of kidney damage.
Diabetes and high blood pressure comprise 75% of all cases of kidney damage. When your health care provider does routine blood work, it almost always includes a measure of kidney function because it is so important to know what your levels are. The early stages of kidney failure can be treated and hopefully, prevent further decline in function.
How Do the Kidneys Fail Without Me Knowing It?
People who develop kidney failure and find out too late were those who did not have the blood checked or who did not take care of their high blood pressure or diabetes. There are no warning signs early in the disease. Later on, you may experience fatigue and everyone develops swelling of the legs. Sometimes it is so severe that there is swelling from neck to toes. That is extreme but happens. Swelling occurs because the kidneys lose the ability to balance the body water, the electrolytes and fluid then backs up in the tissues.
When It’s Too Late, Here’s What Happens
Kidney failure can eventually lead to death. But with the miracle of dialysis and transplants, your life can be extended. Both of these have their downsides so they are not without problems. Dialysis requires a special opening in a major vessel called a “shunt”. This is attached with tubes to a machine that filters the blood of toxins, same as the kidneys would do. However, it is time consuming (generally 3-5 hours a day, 3-4 days a week) and most feel extreme fatigue for a day afterwards. Transplants require taking medications that affect the immune system so the new kidney is not rejected. Rejection can still occur. Infections are a problem with both dialysis and transplants. The number of people who need a kidney far outnumbers donors. Most people are on a waiting list which can last for months. Some people need more than one transplant in their lifetime. Both dialysis and transplants buy you some time but only a few years. Much depends on how well you take care of yourself.
image from National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana
Prevention Really Works
It is not difficult to keep your kidneys healthy. Here are the basics:
- Keep your blood pressure under control.
- Keep diabetes under control. A little more difficult but easier now that we have a variety of medications that helps.
- Do not take over-the-counter medications or herbal/natural products without first checking with your health care provider. Certain products, especially a non-steroidal (like Ibuprofen) can damage the kidneys.
- Maintain good health in general with a balanced diet, exercise, and no smoking.
Even though the health care system can keep you alive when your kidneys have failed, there is a limit. Dialysis and transplants may buy you time overall, but your quality of life suffers in the process.
National Kidney Month – March 2018. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly (MMWR). March 16, 2018/67(10);289.https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6710a1.htm?s_cid=mm6710a1_w
Kidney Care (A Minute of Health with the CDC) podcast. April 24, 2018.https://tools.cdc.gov/medialibrary/index.aspx#/media/id/379472
Kidney Care (A Cup of Health with the CDC) podcast. April 24, 2018.https://tools.cdc.gov/medialibrary/index.aspx#/media/id/379467
What is the Average Life Expectancy After a Kidney Transplant or Dialysis? Dr. Sankaran Sundar. Interview, You Tube. July 28, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OdWXaIdIH8
National Kidney Month. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health.https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/communication-programs/nkdep/get-involved/national-kidney-month