Make the Kidney Connection: What you Need to Know about Protecting your Kidneys

What you Need to Know about Protecting your Kidneys

By Andrew S. Narva, MD, FACP

Did you know that diabetes and high blood pressure are the two main causes of kidney disease? That’s why it is so important for you to get checked for kidney disease—and take steps to keep your kidneys healthy—if you have one of these two conditions. You should also get checked for kidney disease if you have heart disease or if you have a mother, father, sister, or brother with kidney failure.

Here are the top three facts everyone should know about kidney disease:

1) Early kidney disease has signs or symptoms.

Usually the damage occurs slowly over many years, but because you can’t feel kidney disease, you don’t know the damage is happening. However, simple blood and urine tests can check on the health of your kidneys.

2) Kidney disease usually does not go away.

It tends to get worse over time and can in time lead to kidney failure. If your kidneys fail, you will need to be treated with dialysis or undergo a kidney transplant.

3) Kidney disease can be treated.

The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can get treatment to help protect your kidneys.

What do kidneys do?

You have two kidneys. Their main job is to filter waste and the extra water out of your blood and make urine. Healthy kidneys also help keep the levels of sodium, phosphorus, and potassium balanced in your blood.

Testing for kidney disease

Two tests are used to check for kidney disease.

A blood test checks your glomerular [gloh-MER-yuh-ler] filtration rate (GFR), which measures how well your kidneys filter blood. A GFR of 60 or higher is in the normal range. A GFR below 60 may mean kidney disease. A GFR result of 15 or lower may mean kidney failure.

A urine test checks for the level of albumin [al-BYOO-min] in your urine. Albumin is a protein found in the blood that can pass into the urine when the kidneys are damaged. A healthy kidney does not let much albumin pass into the urine. So, the less albumin in your urine, the better. A urine albumin result below 30 is normal. A urine albumin result above 30 may mean kidney disease.

Treating kidney disease

Kidney disease can be treated. The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can begin treatment and take steps to keep your kidneys healthier longer, possibly preventing kidney failure. Treating kidney disease may also help prevent heart disease. None of the drugs that are used to treat kidney disease are ones that are also used to treat heart disease.

To slow kidney disease in people with diabetes, medicines are available to lower blood pressure, control blood sugar, and lower blood cholesterol. Two types of blood pressure medicines—angiotensin [an-jee-oh-TEN-sin]-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs)—can slow kidney disease and help delay kidney failure, even in people who don’t have high blood pressure. In some cases, health care providers will prescribe extra drugs to help slow down kidney damage.

Help Others Make the Kidney Connection

Talk to your family and community about kidney health. Encourage those at risk to talk to their health care providers about getting checked for kidney disease. You don’t have to be a health expert to talk about kidney health. The National Kidney Disease Education Program (NKDEP) offers free tools that can tell you how!

The Family Reunion Health Guide can help you talk about the connection between diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease at your next family gathering. And the Kidney Sundays Toolkit gives faith-based organizations what they need to include kidney health messages in programs and events. The materials are easy to use by anyone who wants to talk about kidney disease with their friends, family, co-workers, or community.

For more information about kidney disease, visit the NKDEP website at To order the tools described above or the For People with Diabetes or High Blood Pressure: Get Checked for Kidney Disease brochure, call 1-866-4 KIDNEY (1-866-454-3639) or visit

Also, join NKDEP’s Make the Kidney Connection page on Facebook ( to get regular tips about kidney health.

Dr. Andrew Narva, a nephrologist, is director of the National Kidney Disease Education Program (NKDEP), an initiative of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health. NKDEP helps primary care providers better assess and treat chronic kidney disease (CKD), health professionals better educate patients about CKD, advance diagnostic tools used to assess kidney function, and improve coordination of Federal response to CKD. Prior to joining NIH in 2006, Dr. Narva established and led the Indian Health Service Kidney Disease Program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.