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Are You At Risk for Kidney Disease?

If you wait to experience symptoms, it may be too late

By Catherine DeCenzo

Kidney disease has an infamous reputation for sneaking up on us with very little warning. Twenty-six million American adults have kidney disease and most of them don’t know it. In its early stages, the disease has no symptoms.

I was fortunate enough to get my kidney disease diagnosed early, which is the first step in halting its progression. Stopping it in its tracks also lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Our kidneys constantly filter our blood while removing waste, toxins and excess fluid. They are activating Vitamin D to maintain and keep our bones healthy. They are releasing hormones that direct the production of red blood cells and keeping certain minerals in check, particularly sodium, phosphorous and potassium.

But by the time there is a problem, it can be too late. Kidney disease may already be in its advanced stages.

After my diagnosis, I made a few lifestyle modifications and stayed informed about the disease. I was able to prolong the health of my kidneys for 10 years before opting for a pre-emptive kidney transplant in 2012. Today, thankfully, I'm doing well.

Here's some essential advice for you:

Who Is At Risk

Do you have diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease? Do you have a family member who has or has had kidney disease? (It runs in the family.) Are you African American, Hispanic or American Indian? (These populations tend to have a greater risk for kidney failure, mostly due to higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in their communities.) If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to be hyper-aware of warning signs or symptoms of chronic kidney disease.

Symptoms of Kidney Disease

We often chalk up new symptoms to aging: fatigue and weakness; the increased need to urinate (especially at night); swelling of the face, hands, ankles or feet; sexual dysfunction; an increase in thirst; puffy eyes or dry and painful, itchy skin. Women may think little of being anemic.

But many of these symptoms can also be telltale signs that your kidneys may be struggling, especially if they come on suddenly. That said, since you may have no symptoms at all, you can see how important it is to identify kidney disease before it reaches an advanced stage.

Ask for the Test

You go to your gynecologist or family physician regularly, right? A simple blood test can measure how much blood your kidneys are filtering and a urine test can check for excessive amounts of protein (a sign of kidney disease).

But not all lab work is created equal. Don’t assume your doctor is checking for these things automatically when ordering lab work for other medical issues. Tell him or her you would specifically like your kidney levels checked. Any questionable lab results can be red flags for kidney functioning gone wild. If caught early enough, kidney disease can be slowed by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, eating a renal-friendly diet and making routine visits to a nephrologist (kidney specialist).

Not Cured, Only Managed


Once at an advanced stage, kidney damage cannot be reversed. The resulting condition is referred to as Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) or End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). At this point, your kidneys will no longer filter wastes well enough to keep you healthy and there are only two solutions: dialysis (externally removing a buildup of waste, salt and extra water) or transplantation (a surgical procedure to place a kidney from a live or deceased donor into your body).

Neither is a cure.

Dialysis and Transplantation

There are two types of dialysis: “Hemodialysis” requires being tethered to a filtration system three to four times a week at a medical facility, and each session lasts three to five hours. “Peritoneal” dialysis involves placing a permanent tube in the patient’s abdomen where waste is exchanged and flushed mechanically. It can be performed at home but only after extensive training. Either dialysis treatment can be exhausting for patients; it limits their activities and can place them at an increased risk of infection.

Transplantation is the best treatment for ESRD, but requires a donor match, major surgery and a lifetime regimen of medications to prevent rejection. The medications often have undesirable side effects, too, and immunosuppressed patients are at a greater risk for infections and cancers.

It can also take years to get a kidney depending on your health, compatibility and availability. More than 100,000 patients in the United States are on the kidney transplant list, but each year only 17,000 receive one.

Hope in Research

On a positive note, a national research project is underway to create a small, surgically-implanted and free-standing bio-artificial kidney to treat end stage renal disease. The device has shown such promise that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year selected it as one of three projects for a special fast-track approval process.

Researchers hope it will be ready for human trials in 2017.

Until then, advocating for yourself by getting regular checkups, staying informed, staying healthy and asking your care provider about your risk for kidney disease are the first steps you can take to be sure you’re healthy

Catherine DeCenzo is a Washington, D.C.-area writer and copy editor. She received a kidney transplant in 2012. She was lucky enough to be diagnosed early with kidney disease. With a few lifestyle modifications, and being a self-advocate by staying informed, she prolonged the health of her kidneys for 10 years before opting for a pre-emptive kidney transplant. Read More
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