Because kidneys are responsible for many of the body’s functions, kidney disease poses a serious threat to a person’s ability to remain healthy.

Kidney disease is characterized by a gradual loss of kidney function over time. While the kidneys play a vital role in keeping your body functioning, their importance can be underestimated. Did you know that 1 in 3 Americans is at risk for kidney disease?

Healthy kidneys are responsible for many bodily processes. The kidneys regulate the body’s fluid levels, filter waste and toxins from the blood, release hormones to regulate blood pressure and produce red blood cells, help maintain healthy bones, and keep blood minerals (sodium, phosphorus, potassium) in balance.

When the kidneys are damaged, it decreases their ability to keep you healthy. As kidney disease progresses, waste can build up in your blood and make you feel sick. You may develop complications like high blood pressure, anemia (low blood count), weak bones, poor nutritional health or nerve damage. Kidney disease also increases your risk of having heart and blood vessel disease. When kidney disease turns into kidney failure, treatment requires dialysis or a kidney, transplant. These problems may happen slowly over a long period of time, but early detection and prevention are key to keep kidney disease from getting worse and preventing or treating complications.

Maintaining healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels is critical to preventing kidney disease.

How do you know if you’re at risk for kidney disease?

Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the leading causes of kidney disease. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or a family history of kidney failure, you are at increased risk, so its important to get your kidneys checked during your annual physical. There are two simple tests to check for kidney disease:

  1. A urine test for albumin, a type of protein.

When there is too much protein in the urine, it means that the kidney filter has some damage and is starting to leak protein. Albuminuria or too much protein in the urine is one of the earliest signs of kidney damage.

2. A blood test for creatinine.

Creatinine is a natural muscle byproduct, and this measurement is used to calculate your estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). The eGFR tests how well the kidneys are filtering wastes from the blood.

Here are 5 tips from the National Kidney Foundation to help prevent kidney disease and manage your risk factors.

1. Step on the scale.

Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your kidneys. When someone is obese, the kidneys have to work harder to filter out toxins and to meet the metabolic demands of the increased body mass index (BMI). This is called hyper-filtration and increases your risk of developing kidney disease. Obesity also increases your chance of developing diabetes and high blood pressure, the major risk factors for kidney disease. Losing weight can help reduce this risk. Following a healthy diet and exercising regularly is an important element of kidney disease prevention.

2. Mind your meds.

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications are filtered by the kidneys. This means that your kidneys degrade and remove these medications from the body. When your kidneys aren’t working properly, medications can build up and cause harm. It’s important to get your kidneys checked and to work with your doctor to make any adjustments to your medication regimen such as dosing changes or substitutions. This will help prevent any negative effects from the medication, including further kidney damage.

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference when it comes to preventing kidney disease and slowing disease progression.

3. Control your numbers.

Maintaining healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels is critical to preventing kidney disease and slowing its progression. To lower blood pressure and protect your kidneys, reduce your salt intake and watch for high sodium levels in processed foods. High blood pressure contributes to both kidney and heart diseases, and people with kidney failure are three times more likely to have heart disease.

4. Commit to quit.

Smoking is like stepping on a disease accelerator. It can worsen kidney disease and diseases that damage the kidneys, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Quitting can be difficult, but it is one of the most important lifestyle changes that you can make to protect your kidneys and impact your overall health.

5. Treat your pains with caution.

The same medications that alleviate your aches and pains can harm the kidneys. Before reaching into the medicine cabinet, read the label and weigh the risks and benefits of taking a particular medication. Take pain medications exactly as prescribed or as directed on the label to minimize risk to the kidneys. If you have kidney disease, you should avoid ibuprofen and naproxen. Aspirin and acetaminophen at recommended doses are safer for the kidneys.

Dr. Joseph A. Vassalotti, MD, is the National Kidney Foundations Chief Medical Officer. He also currently serves on the clinical faculty of Medicine in the Division of Nephrology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. For more information about kidney disease and keeping your kidneys healthy, visit the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) website at kidney.org. To speak with a trained professional who will answer your kidney questions and listen to your concerns, call the NKF Cares toll-free patient hotline at 1.855.NKF Cares (653.2273).