Kidneys: Protecting the Protectors

It’s important to know what the kidneys do and how to keep them healthy.  After all, how can kidneys properly protect the body if we don’t protect them? 

Kidneys 101
Nephrologist Dr. Louise Moist, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Western University calls kidneys “gatekeepers.” These multi-tasking organs regulate fluids and blood pressure, balance minerals and electrolytes, ensure red blood cell production and filter wastes. Every minute, about one litre of blood enters the kidneys, is cleaned, and then flows back into the body.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)
CKD is the presence of kidney damage, or a decreased level of kidney function, for a period of three months or more.

It is estimated that approximately 2.5 million Canadians live with chronic kidney disease,
but fewer than half of cases are diagnosed.  Often considered a silent disease, CKD may not present with symptoms (such as increased urination, fatigue, swelling, or shortness of breath) until an advanced stage.

Since the kidneys often don’t let you know that something is amiss, it’s particularly important to be proactive about checking up on them. Fortunately, you can easily
ask your family doctor for a simple creatinine blood test (for eGFR) to assess kidney function and a urine test (uACR) to assess kidney damage.

Who is at Risk?
Everyone should be considering their kidney health, but if you are at higher risk of CKD, it’s particularly important to be proactive.
Risk factors include obesity, older age, and family history, but most notable of all are type two diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure), responsible for more than half of all CKD cases.

Dr. Moist notes, “CKD is associated with other chronic diseases because of the shared environment.  They are all connected. 
For instance, high blood pressure can worsen the amount of protein leaking from the kidneys, causing further kidney damage and greater difficulty controlling the blood pressure.”

Checking your Kidney Health
Dr. Moist likens the blood and urine kidney tests to a warning light in your vehicle.  “If, for example, we see protein in the urine, it’s like when a red light goes on in the car. Even though everything seems to be fine, it’s telling you there is a problem.”

Taking Charge of Your Kidney Health
If there are signs of kidney dysfunction or damage there are steps you can take to protect your health. Dr. Moist notes, “We now have compelling studies showing us the importance of early intervention with lifestyle changes and medications. Recently there has been a revolution in medications that can not only reduce progression of kidney disease but can simultaneously reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and mortality.”

Bottom line? Just because they aren’t in the limelight doesn’t mean kidneys don’t need your attention.  Be proactive and talk to your doctor about tests to assess your kidney health, as well as next steps for keeping your kidneys (and the rest of your body) as healthy as possible.

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