When it comes to vital organs, hearts get all the love. Most people don’t think twice about their kidneys and can take them for granted. But when kidneys stop working, so do you. Trust me, I know. 

Even though my grandfather died from kidney disease and my mother is on dialysis, I was still caught off-guard by my diagnosis. I thought I had escaped kidney disease — but like 26 million other Americans, I had not.

A hidden disease

The problem with kidney disease is that the symptoms are hidden. In fact, 90% of people with the disease don’t even know they have it.

There are three important things to keep in mind with kidney disease: awareness, prevention and diagnosis. Awareness — if you have a family history of kidney disease, high blood pressure or diabetes you could have it, too. 

And people of African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, or Pacific Islander descent are at increased risk for developing the disease. African Americans are 3 ½ times more likely, and Hispanics 1 ½ times more likely, to experience kidney failure.

Staying ahead

If you do not have kidney disease but do have risk factors, get checked annually by your healthcare professional and make healthy lifestyle changes. Following a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, low-fat dairy products, and low in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium can help protect against kidney disease for generally healthy individuals.

“I know first-hand how awareness and preventative actions can actually slow, or halt, the progression of kidney disease.”

If you are at risk, get checked. Your healthcare professional can help diagnose you with two simple tests: A blood test, called GFR, will check how well your kidneys are working at keeping your blood clean (healthy kidneys filter your blood to remove waste). A urine test, called ACR, will check if your kidneys are damaged by looking at how much protein is in your urine. When kidneys are damaged they allow protein to leak into urine. 

A personal story

In my own case, once I was diagnosed I worked very closely with my doctor to keep my kidneys functioning for as long as possible and adopted an overall healthier lifestyle. Because of these changes, I was able to stave off dialysis for over three four years. While on peritoneal dialysis I received a kidney from a deceased donor. While not a cure, a kidney transplant can be better in the long-run — patients with a transplant live 10-15 years longer than those on dialysis. 

I know first-hand how awareness and preventative actions can actually slow, or halt, the progression of kidney disease. During National Kidney Month, think about your kidneys, talk with your doctor if you’re at risk and remember — healthy kidneys are vital to your overall health.