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The Connection Between Diet and Kidney Damage

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonMarch 18, 2014

A nutrient-rich, heart-healthy diet is also good for the kidneys, it turns out. Read more about what you can do to keep your loved ones healthy during National Kidney Month.

The Connection Between Diet and Kidney Damage

We may not spend a lot of time thinking about our hardworking kidneys, but the truth is, more than 50% of seniors over the age of 75 are believed to have kidney disease, according to recent estimates by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. As we age, our kidney function tends to decline. However, most people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) don’t even know they have it, even though it’s the 9th leading cause of death in the United States. Because March is National Kidney Month, the National Kidney Foundation is urging everyone over the age of 60 to be screened for kidney disease.

In addition to getting tested, there is a lot we can do at home to prevent kidney problems in ourselves and our aging loved ones. The two leading causes of CKD are diabetes and high blood pressure — two conditions that are often closely linked to diet. Other kidney problems, such as kidney stones, are also aggravated by bad dietary habits and lack of adequate hydration.  With proper nutrition, it is possible to prevent or minimize these conditions and keep our kidneys healthy.

The Risks of Poor Kidney Health

Unfortunately, as our loved ones age, they acquire more risk factors for getting kidney disease: diabetes incidence goes up, and even more alarming, so does high blood pressure, which may affect more than 80% of the elderly over the age of 85, according to Dr. Leslie Spry, National Kidney Foundation Spokesperson. These are the two leading causes of kidney disease that become more common in seniors, but beyond that, prostate disease (including cancer) in men and urinary tract infections in women also increase the risk of kidney issues.

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“Kidney stones also increase with age and peak at about 75 years of age,” says Dr. Spry. “Kidney cancer increases in the elderly, especially in smokers.”

Besides the health problems that directly result from kidney disease — anemia, high blood pressure, nerve damage, even kidney failure — there are a number of secondary problems that can result from poor kidney health. Having CKD has been found to increase the risk of cognitive impairment, according to recent studies. It can also pose a risk to elderly people who take multiple medications. Because the kidneys filter the blood, they help our bodies process and remove drugs, so any severe impediments to kidney function may be a potential safety hazard.

Dietary Guidelines for Preventing Kidney Disease in Seniors

A healthy diet is one of the best ways to help prevent kidney disease. “I recommend the low salt DASH diet for patients with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) Stage 3,” says Dr. Spry. “A dietitian familiar with kidney diets and who can review medical history and laboratory testing is advised if you have CKD 4 or 5. Medicare also pays for dietary counseling in patients who have CKD Stage 4 or 5.”

The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet was developed by the National Institutes of Health. Says Dr. Spry, “A DASH diet includes an emphasis on complex carbohydrates in the diet, increased fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and decreasing animal meats, fats, oils and sweets in the diet. Nuts and legumes with no salt added are encouraged.” Studies have shown that the DASH diet helps decrease blood pressure, lowers the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, and reduces the risk of kidney stones (National Kidney Foundation).

The National Kidney Foundation also has a few other tricky tips for optimizing your pantry, if kidney health is a priority:

  • Buy canned goods with “no salt added” on the label
  • Buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of canned when possible
  • Look for the word “whole grains” on the food package
  • Cook with olive and canola oil for heart-healthy fats
  • Flavor your food with spices and herbs instead of salt

More Tips for Healthy Kidneys

Diet isn’t the only key to kidney health. Dr. Spry recommends a number of other health strategies to keep the body in tiptop working order for as long as possible:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Get plenty of physical activity (at least 150 minutes per week)
  • Seniors should stay on top of chronic health conditions that could be risk factors for kidney disease: “If they have diabetes or high blood pressure, these should be controlled and there should be careful follow up with their primary care physicians,” says Dr. Spry.
  • Stay well hydrated: “Drink plenty of water to avoid bladder infections. Cranberry juice will also prevent bladder infections in ladies. Men should have their prostate checked annually and women should have careful follow up after a urinary tract infection to make sure that the infection is totally cleared.”

Last but definitely not least, be sure your senior loved ones get an annual screening once they’re over the age of 60, especially if they’re in a higher risk category. The testing, says Dr. Spry, “includes urine testing for blood, protein, and infection. We also recommend blood testing for creatinine that can be used to calculate the estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR).” GFR testing is the best overall index of kidney function that professionals currently have at their disposal. Worried about coverage? Medicare generally covers diagnostic laboratory services, especially those which are deemed medically necessary or that are ordered by your doctor.

How are you and your loved ones taking charge of good kidney health? Let us know in the comments.

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Sarah Stevenson
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