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You may not have noticed that earlier this month, the Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, the CN Tower, Niagara Falls and other landmarks were lit up in orange to mark World Kidney Day.
If you really haven’t thought much about your kidneys at all, you’re not alone.
And yet, one in every 10 Canadians is estimated to have kidney disease. This rate is on the rise both in Canada and internationally, in parallel with an increase in risk factors such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, as well as dehydration and diarrhea in developing countries.
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Because kidney disease is hard to detect and is a progressive condition, many people will not even realize they have a problem until it’s too late.
In my work as a kidney specialist (nephrologist) at the Hospital for Sick Children’s kidney transplant program, I see children who come in with end-stage kidney disease, when just weeks prior they had no idea anything was the matter. Once they’re at that stage, however, they will need dialysis and ultimately a kidney transplant.
And while we used to think that otherwise healthy adults who suffered kidney damage — from things such as a bacterial infection in the blood stream, drug toxicity or an interruption in blood flow — would recuperate fully, we now know that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, the kidneys may deteriorate over time without proper treatment.
The consequences are huge. Our kidneys are continuously filtering blood to remove toxins and waste, regulating our water balance and blood pressure, helping produce vitamin D and much more. So losing kidney function is a big deal.
And yet, many people take kidneys for granted — especially when we think we have it covered by having two of them. But that’s not the case. First of all, some people actually only have one kidney. And most importantly, when our kidneys are damaged, they are typically both harmed simultaneously. So it’s not as if the second one is able to act as a spare.
If you have diabetes, chronic high blood pressure, heart disease, an inflammatory condition such as Lupus, a family history of kidney disease or have had kidney damage in the past, you are at a higher risk of developing kidney disease (in both of your kidneys). Rates are also high among black, South Asian and Asian populations.
So what should you do if you think you might be at risk? Fortunately, a lot of general advice for healthy living applies to keeping your kidneys in good shape: regular exercise, a healthy diet low in salt and keeping blood pressure and diabetes under control.
There are also some medications, including angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors used most commonly to lower blood pressure, that can slow down the progression of kidney disease. And in my cell biology research laboratory, we are studying certain molecules and proteins that might serve as treatment options in the future.
Unfortunately, we haven’t yet figured out how to stop kidney disease in its tracks — but we do have ways of slowing it down. So if you think you might be at risk, you should ask your family doctor for a referral to a specialist.