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Common conditions

KIDNEY DISEASE: A SILENT KILLER

You can lose up to 90% of your kidney function before you develop symptoms of chronic kidney disease. Are you at risk?

Dr Richard K S Phoon | Senior Staff Specialist in Nephrology, Westmead Hospital
March 2017

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) isn’t talked about enough. Did you know that it kills more Australians each year than breast or prostate cancer, or even road traffic accidents? Around 1.7 million of us (1 in 10 adults) have CKD, but many don’t realise there’s a problem.

CKD doesn't just cause your kidney function to deteriorate, it also puts you at a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke. In fact, your risk of dying from a cardiovascular event could be 20 times higher than your chances of needing dialysis or a kidney transplant.

While these facts may be alarming, the good news is that CKD is largely preventable through positive lifestyle changes. It’s equally important to understand the risk factors and warning signs so you can decide whether to ask your doctor for a Kidney Health Check. This matters because early detection can not only slow the progression of CKD, it can even halt or reverse it. 

How kidneys work

Your kidneys play an important role in controlling your bodily fluids and filtering your blood to remove wastes and toxins. They also perform other critical bodily functions, including adding water to waste to produce urine and regulating your blood pressure and vitamin D production.

Your kidneys contain millions of tiny blood filters called nephrons. If they become damaged, you can develop kidney disease.

Risk factors

The two most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. If one or more of the following applies to you, you’re also at higher risk:

  • obese (BMI > 30)
  • aged 60+
  • smoker
  • family history of kidney failure
  • cardiovascular disease 
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin 
  • history of acute kidney injury. 

This means that around 1 in 3 Australians are at increased risk of developing CKD. 

Know the signs 

Kidney disease often has no warning signs, but these symptoms could indicate reduced kidney function:

  • high blood pressure
  • changes in the volume, frequency or appearance of your urine (e.g. frothy urine or blood present)
  • puffiness around the legs, ankles and/or eyes
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • itchiness
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • lack of concentration
  • muscle cramps.

Getting checked

If you’re at high risk, or you’re experiencing any of the above warning signs ask your doctor for a Kidney Health Check. In the three-point check, you doctor will:

  • test your urine for protein
  • test your blood for creatinine (a waste product that’s usually removed by the kidneys)
  • take your blood pressure.

You can also complete a quick online test to gauge your level of risk. While this tool can help you understand your likelihood of developing kidney disease it won’t provide a diagnosis. For that you need to see your doctor.

What you can do

Simple lifestyle changes can go a long way when it comes to preventing CKD. Kidney Health Australia’s recommendations are: 

  • maintain a healthy body weight
  • eat a healthy diet
  • get regular exercise
  • drink enough water
  • don’t smoke
  • limit your alcohol consumption
  • maintain healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar (glucose) levels.

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