Health Team

Want to live longer? Take care of this organ

Posted November 20, 2013
Updated November 21, 2013

— No one can live forever, but most people would like to know how they might beat the odds and live longer than 78 years – the average U.S. life expectancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Apart from age, a medical study found that the leading predictor of a long life is kidney health.

Dr. Tom Coffman, chief of nephrology at Duke University School of Medicine, says kidney disease is a silent killer. By the time a person notices symptoms of kidney disease, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, unexplained weight loss and swelling in the legs, he or she is already in kidney failure and in need of kidney dialysis.

“The main function (of kidneys) is really to filter toxins out of the blood that are produced by the normal metabolism of the body,” Coffman said. “People get sick primarily because of this accumulation of toxins that aren’t excreted appropriately. But they also have problems with anemia, low blood count, high blood pressure (and) problems with their bones.”

For most people, kidney problems can be avoided, starting with regular physical exams. The two most common causes of kidney disease are high blood pressure and diabetes. If those problems go unaddressed, it stresses and damages the kidneys’ millions of tiny filtering vessels over time.

That's why doctors often ask patients for a urine sample, so they can look for abnormal levels of protein. A standard blood test will reveal two important kidney numbers: creatinine and blood urea nitrogen, which are metabolic waste products that should not exceed certain levels in the blood if the kidneys are healthy.

Kidney Want to live longer? Take care of your kidneys

“One of the things your kidneys do is handle and excrete the salt that you eat in your diet, and when the kidneys are not working properly, you don’t excrete enough salt, your body fluids expand, and that causes your blood pressure to go up,” Coffman said. “Then, blood pressure can go on to damage your kidneys.”

Those who want to live a longer, healthier life should ask their doctor about kidney function, even if the doctor doesn’t mention it first. Besides diet and exercise, doctors say it’s important to avoid taking too much ibuprofen, which can damage the kidneys and lead to kidney failure.

A note from Dr. Allen Mask, WRAL’s Health Team physician:

So what is the No. 1 predictor on how long you will live? Our unscientific poll results showed most of our viewers got the answer wrong.

As our Health Team report revealed, I shared the stage not too long ago with National Kidney Foundation President Dr. Lynda Szczech, who made this startling revelation which surprised both the doctors and lay people in the audience. A publication in the medical journal Kidney International demonstrated the best predictive value of survival was in descending order: 1) age; 2) kidney function; and 3) blood pressure. Apart from your age, the state of your kidneys is the best predictor for how long you will live.

But don't despair. The purpose of our broadcast was to highlight the dangers of a disease that many of us know little about. Hypertension and diabetes are the major causes of chronic kidney disease. Other causes include autoimmune diseases like lupus, glomerulonephritis, polycystic disease, repeated infections, obstructions to the flow of urine and use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen, naprosyn and high doses of aspirin. (Daily low-dose cardiovascular preventive aspirin is fine.) And some African-Americans carry a gene that can speed the progression to end-stage kidney disease.

Early detection is critical in preventing the progression of this life threatening disease because symptoms of kidney disease typically do not appear until the late stages. Fatigue, swelling of the feet and ankles, poor appetite, muscle cramping and puffiness around the eyes are some indicators to look for.

So ask your doctor "What about my kidneys?" especially if you have hypertension or diabetes. Get a blood test (serum creatinine) and don't be afraid to pee in a cup to have your urine checked. It is one of the best things you can do to save your life.

How much do you know about your health? Take our quiz and see the answers below:

1) The American Heart Association says the ideal blood pressure should be:
A) Less than or equal to 120/80
B) Less than 140/90
C) Between 140/90 - 150/100
D) Does not matter if you feel fine

2) What are risk factors for kidney disease?
A) Uncontrolled hypertension
B) Uncontrolled diabetes
C) Abuse of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (ex: ibuprofen)
D) Prolonged obstruction of the kidneys by an enlarged prostate or kidney stones
E) All of the above
F) All of the above except C

3) Which of the following statements are true?
A) About 40% of patients who present for kidney dialysis had no prior knowledge of kidney disease
B) Atrial fibrillation is a major risk factor for strokes
C) Type II diabetes is more common than Type I diabetes
D) All of the above are true
E) None of the above are true

4) Guidelines for reducing atherosclerosis & cardiovascular disease include all the following except:
A) Reduce saturated fats and trans fats in the diet
B) Exercise 40 minutes a day for 3 to 4 days a week
C) Consideration of bariatric weight loss surgery if BMI >40 or >35 with two co-morbid factors
D) Take a multivitamin every day

5) New guidelines (from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology) in cholesterol management include each of the following questions except?
A) Do you have cardiovascular disease (ex: previous heart attack or stroke)?
B) Do you have Type II diabetes (ages 40-75)?
C) Do you have a "bad" cholesterol (LDL) level over 190?
D) Do you have a family history of diabetes?
E) Is your 10-year risk of cardiovascular disease greater than 7.5% (ages 40-75)?

1) A - Less than or equal to 120/80
2) E - All of the above
3) D - All of the above are true
4) D - Take a multivitamin every day
5) D - Do you have a family history of diabetes?


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  • simplelogic Nov 22, 2013

    One of the concerns about living kidney donation is the worry that having only one kidney may cause future problems for the donor - two things: 1- Diseases or conditions that cause kidney failure typically affect both kidneys, so having both doesn't really help much in that case; 2- Kidney function is extremely redundant - dialysis isn't typically needed until it declines to about 12% of normal, and when a person donates a kidney, the remaining one increases in size and efficiency due to the added workload. So if you have a loved one with failing kidneys and are considering giving them one of yours, take this into consideration - you could save their life with little risk to yourself, and living donor kidneys typically last a lot longer than deceased donor kidneys.

  • simplelogic Nov 22, 2013

    Polycystic kidney disease is the MOST common life-threatening genetic disease - how many of you have actually heard of it? The bad - it usually leads to end-stage renal failure by ~60. The not so bad - it progresses very slowly, so if you know you have it, you can control hypertension, and interventional treatments can help with anemia and bone disorders until function declines to the point of needing dialysis or transplant. PKD patients tend to do well with both. Really 02, I'm not sure what you mean by "there goes kidney donation" - a healthy kidney from a deceased stranger has saved my sister from dialysis.

  • caesarrodney1980 Nov 21, 2013

    IF I pickle them is that the same as preserving them?

  • JohnnyWalker Nov 21, 2013

    If WRAL has the key to living a longer life, why don't they specify it in the title? I feel like this is MAJOR news and they good folks of the Triangle shouldn't be teased into clicking another link. Its like when they tease the 6 oclock news with a story about a major serial killer or a widespread health issue that is vital to society's well being. "Tune in at 6 for a story that can instantly save your life!"

  • Obamacare for one and all Nov 21, 2013

    I wish I could sell one of mine on thr black market and make a little bit of cash.

  • ncbeachbound2 Nov 21, 2013

    I should also add, there is no history of cancer of any kind in my husband's family. NONE. "Family history" may have a lot to do with some things but not always.

  • snowl Nov 21, 2013

    I still think that "family history" has a lot to do with longevity. When your grandparents and your parents lived independently into their 90's, this shows a healthy family history.

  • common tater Nov 21, 2013

    A study by the National Kidney Foundation finds that the kidney is most important. Hmmm. The TV story implied that genetics was way down the list. I do agree with one thing in the story..."unscientific". What's one factor in how well your kidneys do? Genetics. Sure, you can abuse them and die sooner. But the NKF is not going to convice me that genetics isn't the number one predictor of life's just that they don't know enough about it yet.

  • joeBob Nov 21, 2013

    Something is going to kill you that is for sure but modern medicine says get on one or more prescription meds for the rest of your life just to be safe. The more I know about medicine, the less I want to know about medicine. Just take all the drugs and vaccines Merck sells and everything will be alright.

  • ncbeachbound2 Nov 21, 2013

    My husband had a number of these symptoms. We all thought it was related to his high blood pressure and the medicines he was taking for that. Turned out that the high blood pressure was due to Kidney cancer. By the time the cancer was found it was already in stage 4. He only made it 5 months from date of diagnosis to his death. He was only 46.