Kidney care: How to prevent ‘silent killer’ disease

They are bean-shaped organs described as the “unsung heroes” of our bodies – and are so vital we have two of them.

But how much do Australians understand about our kidneys, and how to protect them?

Worryingly, very little, say experts, despite cases of chronic kidney disease increasing at alarming rates.

In the lead-up to World Kidney Day on March 14, Kidney Health Australia says it’s important we educate ourselves about the condition, commonly detected too late.

Kidney-related disease claims more lives in Australia each year than breast cancer, prostate cancer and road accidents combined, the not-for-profit organisation says.

“Early detection and referral saves lives, and the more Australians know their risk and check their kidneys, the higher chance we have of sparing millions from unnecessary suffering, dialysis and death,” says clinical director Associate Professor Shilpa Jesudason.

What do our kidneys do?

The two organs act as a nifty filtration system, ridding our blood of waste, chemicals and excess water, which is excreted as urine.

Kidney Health Australia says kidneys are the “unsung heroes of our bodies” and are responsible for many important tasks.

Their functions include blood pressure control, water balance, blood cleaning and managing production of Vitamin D, which is crucial for strong bones, muscles and overall health.

How to spot the warning signs of kidney disease

Kidney disease is described as a “silent killer” as 90 per cent of kidney function can be lost without any symptoms.

Kidney Health Australia says one in three Australian adults is at risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Of those five million people, 1.7 million have early signs, and 1.5 million are unaware they do.

Indigenous Australians are four times more likely to die from kidney disease.

Western Health head of endocrinology and diabetes Associate Professor Shane Hamblin urges people to look out for the same symptoms as diabetes, such as extreme thirst and a constant need to urinate, to help pick it up early.

“See a doctor if you are getting repeated bladder infections and watch out for headaches which may be a sign of worsening blood pressure,” he says.

“Tiredness can be a sign of advancing kidney disease, and sometimes anaemia. If you notice blood in the urine, it’s also important to get that checked out.”

Other symptoms include:

  • Changes in appearance of urine, and how much is passed
  • High blood pressure
  • Puffiness in your legs, ankles or around your eyes
  • Pain in your kidney area
  • Loss of appetite
  • Concentration problems
  • Itching
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bad breath and a metallic taste in your mouth
  • Muscle cramps
  • Pins and needles in fingers or toes

What’s the best way to care for your kidneys?

Like everything, there’s nothing better than leading a healthy, active life, eating a balanced diet and keeping your weight in check.

Associate Prof Hamblin says people should have blood checks periodically, get screened for diabetes, treat urinary infections promptly and avoid taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin and Nurofen) where possible.

It’s also important for those with diabetes to monitor their blood glucose, as exceeding the target level can damage the blood vessels in the kidneys, rendering them unable to filter blood.

What to do if you are worried about your kidneys

“Simple tests will detect issues with the kidneys,” says A/Prof Hamblin.

“A urine test looking for protein or blood and a blood test to check kidney health can be readily organised by your GP.”

Kidney Health Australia recommends taking the online Kidney Risk Test as the first step.

What are the biggest contributors to kidney disease?

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems
  • Stroke
  • Smoking
  • Obesity

Other risk factors include being aged 60 years or older, of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin, and having a family history of kidney failure.

Associate Prof Hamblin says hypertension, or high blood pressure, puts too much pressure on the “filtration apparatus” of the kidney, while urinary infections can damage the kidneys.

“Diabetes can gum up the filtration units over time with the by-products of glucose,” he adds.

Listen to The House of Wellness radio team talk about the different ways to care for your kidneys.

Written by Elissa Doherty.