Dear Savvy Senior,

Do kidney problems run in families? My mother died from kidney failure 10 years ago at age 74 but didn’t know she had a kidney problem until it was too late.

– Just Turned 60


Dear 60,

Anyone who has a family history of kidney disease, or who has high blood pressure or diabetes, is at increased risk and needs to have their kidneys tested.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 37 million U.S. adults have chronic kidney disease (when the kidneys can’t properly do their job of cleaning toxins and wastes from the blood). Millions more are at risk of developing it, yet most people don’t realize it.

That’s because kidney disease develops very slowly over many years before any symptoms arise. But, left untreated, the disease can eventually require people to spend hours hooked up to a dialysis machine or get a kidney transplant.

Even mild kidney problems can double a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as cause anemia and bone disease.

The reason kidney disease has become so widespread today is because of the rise of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure, which all strain the kidneys.

Another factor is the increasing number of people who take multiple medications, which can overtax the organs. People over age 60 are especially vulnerable, both because they tend to take more drugs and because kidney function normally declines somewhat with age.


Get Tested

Because kidney disease has no early symptoms, the only way to catch it before it advances is to have a simple blood and urine test by your doctor. So, anyone who has diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, a family history of kidney disease, or is age 60 or older needs to get tested.

African, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian Americans, along with Pacific Islanders, are also at increased risk.

If you’re diagnosed with kidney disease, you need to know that there’s no cure, but there are steps you can take to help contain the damage, including:


Control your blood pressure: If you have high blood pressure, get it under 130/80. If you need medication to do it, ACE inhibitors and ARBs are good choices because of their proven ability to protect the kidneys.


Control your diabetes: If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar as close to normal as possible.


Change your diet: This usually means reducing the amount of protein and phosphorus you eat and cutting back on sodium and possibly potassium. Your doctor can help you determine an appropriate eating plan, or you may want to talk to a dietitian.


Watch your meds: Dozens of commonly used drugs can damage the kidneys, especially when taken in high doses over long periods — most notably NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen. Herbal supplements can also be very dangerous.

Talk to your doctor about all the prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal products you take to identify potential problems and find alternatives.


Exercise and lose weight: If you’re overweight and inactive, start an aerobic fitness routine (walk, swim, cycle, etc.) that gets your heart pumping. This will help lower blood pressure, control diabetes, and help you lose excess weight, all of which will help your kidneys.


Quit smoking: If you smoke, quit. Heart disease becomes a much greater risk to the kidneys if you smoke. Smoking also doubles the rate of progression to end-stage renal failure.


Limit alcohol intake: Drinking too much alcohol can worsen kidney disease too, so talk to your doctor to see if it’s safe for you to drink, and if so, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day.


Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.

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