Kidney Disease: Avoiding the “Silent Killer”

On paper, your kidneys look like a pair of chummy red beans. (Yes, mammalian kidneys are the namesake of the heart-healthy kidney bean.) No offense to legumes, but the natural simplicity of a kidney bean couldn’t say less about the vigorous, high-level work your kidneys do.

March is National Kidney Month. There are several reasons to increase public awareness of kidney health­­, especially when it comes to routine testing for kidney disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as many as 90% of Americans living with chronic kidney disease (CKD) are not aware of their illness prior to its advanced stages. But they also tell us that this “silent killer” can be stopped:

“Finding out if your kidneys are struggling before you have symptoms gives you the opportunity to make changes to help keep your kidneys healthier for longer. Even if you have symptoms, you can take steps to slow the disease.”

We tend to think of our kidneys for their secondary function— producing urine as part of the urinary system. And for good reason: as the kidney’s waste product, urine is a primary indicator of organ damage and disease. But output is the kidney’s secondary function. In fact, only 1 to 2 quarts of the 150-200 quarts of blood filtered through the kidneys every day end up as fluid waste.

What Do Kidneys Do?

The kidneys’ primary task is filtering all the blood in your body every 30 minutes as it flows away from the heart through the body. Oxygenated blood from the heart circulates through the renal artery into the kidney, where more than a million microscopic filtering units called nephrons that produce urine from the filtering process. Healthy kidneys remove waste and extra fluid, and also remove acids to maintain pH balance. Even with all that heavy lifting, kidneys also make hormones for the endocrine system that control blood pressure, make red blood cells, and strengthen bones.

These are some of the unique system interactions that make kidney health a top priority for living well. Kidney disorders and diseases tend to require immediate medical attention and management, especially for people living with diabetes and high blood pressure.

Acute Kidney Injury (AKI)

Like all organs, abrupt or rapid damage to one or both kidneys can be fatal in some cases. Acute Kidney Injury (AKI) can affect otherwise healthy kidneys affected by direct damage (heavy physical impact), infection, dehydration, inflammation, and exposure to dangerous toxins.

Kidney Stones

High levels of certain minerals and salts in urine can cause pebble-like, hard deposits to form inside the kidneys and get lodged in the urinary tract. These deposits (commonly called kidney stones) rarely cause permanent damage if treated by a health professional, but left untreated will cause intense discomfort, pain, and in some cases may require surgery to remove.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Chronic kidney disease, also known as chronic renal disease, includes conditions that damage your kidneys and decrease their ability to keep you healthy by filtering wastes from your blood. If kidney disease worsens, waste can build up to excessive levels in your blood and make you feel sick. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the two most common causes of kidney disease. Nearly 1 in 3 people with diabetes and 1 in 5 people with high blood pressure have kidney disease.

If left untreated, CKD can escalate to a more severe stage of kidney disease, called end-stage renal disease (ESRD) — kidney failure that is treated with a kidney transplant or dialysis.

Preventing Kidney Disease

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends regular testing for CKD for people living with diabetes or other risk factors, along with other important reminders:

  • Get active. Physical activity helps control blood sugar levels.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Take medications as directed.
  • Keep your blood pressure below 140/90, or ask your doctor what the best blood pressure target is for you.
  • If you have diabetes, stay in your target blood sugar range as much as possible.
  • Stay in your target cholesterol range.
  • Eat foods lower in salt.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.

We're here to help.

If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or CKD, talk to your doctor about how to protect your kidneys. Your Healthcare Highways Health Plan may cover care coordination services to help qualified members living with chronic conditions like these.

If you are a health plan member and would like to learn more about care coordination benefits, call us! Our Customer Experience Advocates team will help you find out if you qualify for this no-cost personalized service and connect you with the care you need. Check your Healthcare Highways Health Plan ID card for your Customer Experience Advocate team's phone number, or reach out onlineWe'll take it from there!