Kidney disease: A silent yet deadly killer

The kidney is pretty amazing – and it is important we look after it! 

On World Kidney Day, Rural Doctors Foundation reminds us of this often silent but potentially life-threatening disease.  One that is more common than we realise.  Over 8% of Australians live with some form of kidney disease and 20,000 die each year. This represents 11% of all deaths.  Sadly, this disease is even more prevalent within our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Our doctors see an alarming incidence of kidney disease in rural and remote communities.

Common causes of kidney disease

The most common cause of chronic kidney disease in Australia is diabetes. High blood sugar levels damage the blood vessels in the kidneys. This stops them from filtering waste properly. About 4 in 10 cases of chronic kidney disease are caused by diabetes.  Another cause of kidney failure is high blood pressure.

Think of your kidneys as a filtering system.  They filter waste products, excess water, and other impurities from your blood. They regulate pH, salt, and potassium levels. They also produce hormones that regulate blood pressure and control the production of red blood cells. Your kidneys also help your body absorb calcium for healthy bones and muscles.

Each of your kidneys has about a million tiny filters. These filters are called nephrons.  They work constantly to clean your blood. If damaged, the nephrons cannot filter your blood well enough to keep you healthy. If undetected, progressive loss of kidney function can lead to kidney failure.  This is often referred to as end-stage renal disease. At this stage, regular dialysis treatment or a kidney transplant is needed.  Many also die prematurely due to associated diseases such as heart attack or stroke.

Impact on rural and remote communities?

As our research has found, those living in rural and remote communities have a higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure.  The likelihood of kidney disease is higher than for those living in metropolitan areas.  People can appear healthy but are found to have chronic kidney disease.  They have increased risk of dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease regardless of whether they ever develop kidney failure.

How to keep your kidney healthy

  1. Maintain a healthy lifestyle and monitor your weight. Find an exercise you enjoy.  It  won’t feel like exercise, and you are more likely to stick with it. Exercise will also help reduce your blood pressure.
  2. Don’t smoke – it leads to slower blood flow to your kidneys
  3. Limit your over-the-counter medications.  Anti-inflammatory drugs like Ipubrofen can damage your kidneys
  4. Drink plenty of water. It helps clear sodium and toxins from your kidneys

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure, take extra care and get tested regularly.

With diabetes, your kidney is working extra hard to filter your blood. This can lead to kidney failure.  

Blood and urine tests can be used to check for kidney disease. Speak to your rural doctor about regular testing particularly if you:

  • have diabetes
  • are over 60 years old
  • were born at low birth weight
  • have cardiovascular disease or there is a family history
  • have high blood pressure or have a family history, or
  • are overweight

Having a regular check with your rural doctor will monitor your kidney health and alert your doctor to any changes.  Early detection and treatment can help slow or prevent any future damage.