STONE: Have you checked your kidneys lately?

March is National Kidney Month, which brings much needed awareness to renal (kidney) disease and its impact on 26 million Americans. According to the National Kidney Foundation, 1 in 3 Americans is at risk for developing kidney disease and is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. Kidney disease is a serious condition and can even prove fatal if left untreated. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 96 percent of people with kidney disease are unaware that they have it.

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease, accounting for 44 percent of newly diagnosed cases according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Often, no obvious symptoms are present in the early stages of kidney disease. In the case of diabetes, especially when it isn’t controlled, it forces other organs (including the kidneys) to work harder than normal. The kidneys’ ability to filter waste worsens over time and ultimately will fail entirely if left untreated. Tight control of diabetes, through diet, exercise, frequently checking your blood sugar, and adhering to the medication regimen prescribed by a doctor is key. People who manage their diabetes aggressively and maintain blood sugar levels in the targeted range reduce their risk of kidney disease by one-third.

Like all organs in the body, kidneys rely on nutrient-rich blood to keep them running. High blood pressure can not only be a cause for kidney failure, but can also lead to damage as a result of the disease. In the presence of high blood pressure, blood can be restricted from effectively moving through the kidney itself. Furthermore, as pressure builds, damage to the organ becomes progressively worse causing it to function poorly or fail altogether. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends keeping blood pressure below 140/80, unless your health provider sets a different target. Similar to managing diabetes, high blood pressure can also be better controlled by adhering to a proper diet, getting plenty of exercise, and following prescribed medication therapy by a physician. Doctors often prefer to prescribe medications known as ACE inhibitors, especially for patients who also have diabetes, since this type of medication helps control blood pressure but doesn’t raise blood sugar levels opposed to other types of blood pressure medications.

Cardiovascular disease often goes hand in hand with diabetes and high blood pressure; therefore it’s no surprise the negative influence it also has on the kidneys. According to the American Society of Nephrology, cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death for more than 20 million people in the U.S. with chronic kidney disease. Vice versa, having kidney disease increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, whether or not other risk factors for heart disease are present. This makes both “silent killers,” meaning no obvious symptoms exist to alert those afflicted to seek medical care. Therefore, screening for the disease can provide early detection in gaining an advantage in averting kidney disease.

Who should be screened for kidney disease? Anyone aged 18 and older, with diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and/or a family history of kidney disease should seriously consider seeing their healthcare provider to get checked thoroughly. As part of the screening, your doctor will likely perform a physical assessment; looking, listening and hearing various parts of your body as well as asking several questions about yourself, often including those about your diet, activity level, any existing medical issues and all medications you are taking. To provide a more comprehensive assessment, lab tests are ordered to determine if certain waste products exist in the blood. The labs are then reviewed and calculated to determine if kidney disease is present and what stage it is in, giving your doctor options to begin treatment early and to manage it more effectively in the long run.

The prognosis for kidney disease improves the earlier it is detected and in managing both it and any conditions that make it worse such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. The good news is, many of these diseases can be prevented … however, the first step toward detection and prevention begins with you!