The Blog

March 2, 2020

What is Chronic Kidney Disease and Are You at Risk?

You’ve likely heard of health risks like diabetes and high blood pressure, but what about chronic kidney disease? Most people are unaware of this disease, despite it being a common ailment. Approximately 37 million American adults—more than 1 in 7—have chronic kidney disease, putting their health at risk. Furthermore, 9 in 10 adults who have this condition don’t even know they have it.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce your risk of chronic kidney disease or protect your kidneys if you have this disease. By learning how to prevent chronic kidney disease, lower your risk factors, or manage symptoms, you can keep your kidneys and your body healthy.

What Is Chronic Kidney Disease?

Your kidneys—two bean-shaped organs—play an important role in keeping your body functioning. Healthy kidneys filter out wastes and excess fluids from your blood to make urine. Additionally, your kidneys help:

  • Make hormones to control your blood pressure,
  • Keep the proper balance of salts and minerals in your blood,
  • Make red blood cells,
  • Help keep your bones strong.

Chronic kidney disease, or chronic kidney failure, results when your kidneys are damaged and can’t filter your blood as needed. Since this condition happens gradually and often over a long period, early signs of this disease can go unnoticed.

That said, advanced stages can result in dangerously high levels of wastes, fluids, and electrolytes building up in your body. Without treatment, chronic kidney disease can progress into end-stage kidney failure. As a result, you’ll feel sick and will be at increased risk for other health conditions, including:

  • High blood pressure,
  • Low blood count (anemia),
  • Nerve damage,
  • Poor nutrition,
  • Weaker bones,
  • Heart disease.

Who Is at Risk?

While this disease often isn’t discussed, 1 in 3 American adults are at risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Some risk factors can’t be changed, such as a family history of kidney disease, being 65 or older, or having past damage to your kidneys. However, you can change many of the other risk factors.

Fortunately, the two most common risk factors for kidney disease—diabetes and high blood pressure—can be changed.

How Diabetes Can Lead to Chronic Kidney Disease

More than 35% of adult diabetics also have chronic kidney disease. Additionally, the longer you have diabetes (or high blood sugars), the greater your risk for developing chronic kidney disease. But how does diabetes cause kidney disease?

Diabetes can injure the small blood vessels throughout the body, including blood vessels in your kidneys. As your kidneys’ blood vessels become increasingly damaged, your kidneys gradually lose the ability to filter your blood effectively. Ultimately, this process can result in chronic kidney disease.

The damage to your small blood vessels caused by diabetes also increases the risk of high blood pressure.

How High Blood Pressure Can Lead to Chronic Kidney Disease

Approximately 1 in 5 adults who have high blood pressure also have chronic kidney disease. The longer you have this condition, the higher your risk for developing chronic kidney disease.

As in diabetes, high blood pressure can cause damage to blood vessels in your body and your kidneys. Your blood vessels stretch due to the high force of the blood flowing through the vessels. Eventually, the stretched blood vessels weaken and may scar. If this damage occurs in the kidneys’ blood vessels, your kidneys may not be able to effectively remove wastes and fluids from your body, which leads to chronic kidney disease.

Additional common risk factors for chronic kidney disease that you can change include:

  • Smoking,
  • Obesity,
  • Heart disease (also called cardiovascular disease),
  • High cholesterol.

By understanding your risk factors, you can work with your doctor to help reduce your likelihood of getting chronic kidney disease.

What Are the Symptoms?

In the early stages of chronic kidney disease, many people feel fine. This is one reason why so many people can have this disease without knowing it. This happens since your kidneys are designed to do more than your body needs. For instance, people can donate one of their kidneys and still be healthy. Therefore, early in the disease process, your kidneys are still able to filter your blood despite the damage.

That said, as the disease gets worse, your kidneys will eventually struggle to keep up with your body’s needs. Common symptoms include:

  • Swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet (edema),
  • Blood in your urine or stool,
  • Anemia which can make you feel like you have no energy,
  • Nausea,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Chest pains,
  • Headaches,
  • Mental cloudiness or difficulty concentrating,
  • Weight loss,
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Muscle cramps,
  • Bruise and bleed easily.

Can Treatments Reverse Chronic Kidney Disease?

Unfortunately, damage to your kidneys is permanent. Left untreated, chronic kidney disease will progress and get worse over time.

That said, early diagnosis of chronic kidney disease can help slow or prevent further damage to the kidneys. If caught soon enough, many people can stop the progression of the disease.

The main focus of treatments is on identifying what is causing the chronic kidney disease and focusing on improving that issue. By controlling underlying health problems, like diabetes and high blood pressure, you can slow down or even prevent further damage to the kidneys.

How is Chronic Kidney Disease Diagnosed?

First, talk with your doctor about your risk factors and concerns. Your doctor will require a complete medical history, including a family history of kidney disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

Next, your doctor may request blood and urine tests during your regular office visit to screen for chronic kidney disease. Screening tests commonly assess your:

  • Complete blood count to evaluate the number of red blood cells in your body (a low number can mean anemia),
  • Electrolyte levels,
  • Blood urea nitrogen (BUN) levels as high levels can be a sign of kidney or liver damage,
  • Creatinine levels as these levels can increase with poor kidney functioning.

Lastly, your doctor will monitor and treat other medical conditions that increase your chance of developing kidney disease. If there is concern that your kidneys aren’t working as they should, your doctor will likely talk to you about having CT scans or ultrasound scans.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk or Prevent Chronic Kidney Disease?

There is a strong link between chronic kidney disease and lifestyle factors such as obesity, smoking, and inactivity. Therefore, many prevention strategies focus on managing other health conditions and making healthy lifestyle changes.

As an added benefit, these strategies can also help you manage or reduce your risk for diabetes and high blood pressure. This can lower your risk of developing chronic kidney disease.

Nine strategies:

  1. Make regular doctor appointments for health and wellness checkups,
  2. Eat a heart-healthy diet that contains a variety of healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and lean meats, and that limits added sugars and red meats,
  3. Incorporate regular exercise that you enjoy daily,
  4. Reduce your salt intake since too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure,
  5. Drink water daily to help keep your kidneys healthy,
  6. Don’t smoke since smoking can cause damage to your kidneys by reducing the blood flow to those organs,
  7. Take steps to address other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease,
  8. Maintain a healthy weight,
  9. Incorporate stress management techniques to reduce stress.

While chronic kidney disease can’t always be prevented, making healthy changes can slow or stop the progression.

Resources to Help You Prevent or Manage Chronic Kidney Disease

Understanding your risk factors for chronic kidney disease and taking action through healthy changes can help you take charge of your health. However, it can be hard to make healthy changes on your own. Fortunately, help is available.

The Texas Kidney Foundation’s Kidney C.A.R.E. Campaign provides resources, free screening events, workshops, and more. Additionally, the National Kidney Foundation’s KEEP Healthy program offers free screenings, resources, and more. Whether you want to reduce your risk of chronic kidney disease or manage this condition, these programs have resources to help.

If you want to make lifestyle changes, having a strong support system can help. Fortunately, Living Healthier is a free program of It’s Time Texas designed to help support you on your journey to take control of your health.

Our specialized health coaches will encourage you and provide you with research-backed information and the accountability you need to succeed. If you’re working on taking control of your health and would like help along the way, schedule an appointment to talk with a Living Healthier health coach today.

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