Are you at risk for kidney disease?

One of every ten Canadians (4 million people) is living with some form of chronic kidney disease (CKD), and most of us have no idea. To mark Kidney Health Month, the Kidney Foundation of Canada has released some startling information about kidney disease, its causes, its effects and how to prevent it in the first place.

CKD is defined as abnormalities in either the structure of your kidneys, or their function. The overwhelming majority of people with CKD feel zero effects, often until the level of kidney function dips below 50%. Some symptoms of kidney disease are:

  • Swelling in their hands and feet
  • Back pain
  • Problems with urination.

When kidney function goes below 15% of the normal rate, patients are experiencing kidney failure, and need dialysis or a transplant to stay alive. Currently, about 49,000 Canadians are in this boat.

The role of kidneys

The kidneys serve a number of critical roles in the human body. The most important is the elimination of waste and excess fluid. Simply put, you cannot live without this function, which is why late-stage kidney failure requires patients have kidney dialysis as often as three times a week (a four-hour process each time). Essentially, all of your blood is cycled through a machine that cleans it, and then returns it to your body. To this point, dialysis is not very portable, although some patients (about 2% in 2004) are able to do it at home.

What are the risks factors for kidney disease?

The news isn’t all dire. Millions of Canadians live long and active lives by managing their kidney health before it reaches a crisis point, and that’s why health authorities want us to be aware of our kidney risk. A simple online questionnaire can give you a sense of your risk factors, and whether you should see a doctor. In a nutshell, if you have a family history of kidney disease, or if you have diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, your risk is elevated. Interestingly, your race is also a factor. People of Asian, South Asian, African and Aboriginal descent are at higher risk than the rest of us.

Read: Blood pressure and heart health – It’s all about risk

If you have one or more of the risk factors, you may already be getting treatment, because the key to slowing or stopping the loss of kidney function is mostly related to treating the underlying causes. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, your doctor has probably put you on medication for those conditions, and advised you to stay active, eat healthy and pay special attention to lowering your salt intake, quit smoking and lose weight. That’s the best way to manage your kidney health.

Read: 5 questions to ask when choosing a pharmacy for your ongoing medications

For Canadians already being treated for kidney failure, the challenges are considerable. In addition to the tremendous time burden of having to go for regular dialysis, and the inconvenience of a strict diet and having to always stay close to a dialysis machine, the financial burden of dialysis is more than you would think.

Dialysis: Treating kidney disease

2018 report found that dialysis patients start at a disadvantage, given that they are 3-5 times more likely to be under the poverty line than other Canadians. Add to that the fact that more than half of patients undergoing dialysis report a dramatic drop in income (presumably related to their failing health). It’s easy to see why out-of-pocket costs of up to $2,500 a year for treatment are near-impossible to manage. Other challenges include extreme fatigue, weight gain, anxiety and sexual dysfunction.

The preferred treatment for kidney failure is a kidney transplant

Patients who are successful in getting a transplant generally live longer, have better quality of life, have fewer dietary restrictions and even save money compared to those on dialysis. It’s not an option for everyone, but for younger patients who are otherwise healthy, transplantation should be option A.

In 2016 more than 3,400 people were waiting for a kidney donor. Although 85 of them died waiting, more than 1,700 got their wish. After a transplant, a kidney donated by a deceased person can work 10-15 years in the new host’s body. That jumps to 15-20 years if the kidney came from a living donor. Yes, you are born with two kidneys and you can live perfectly well with one. If you’d like to consider donating a kidney, whether it be a living or deceased donation, visit the Kidney Foundation of Canada website.