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Kidney failure in the elderly

by Sue Lanza

Our amazing set of kidneys perform many regular tasks such as cleansing the blood of toxins and expelling it out as urine, moderating blood pressure, and assisting in the production of red blood cells. With such critical bodily functions at stake, it is no wonder that problems with the kidneys, usually termed "kidney failure," can result in debilitating consequences including death. Let's look at how kidney conditions or kidney failure particularly impact the elderly and what can be done about it.

No matter the stage of life, the importance of the kidneys can not be underestimated. Think of the times today that you felt the discomfort of a full bladder and you are quickly reminded of one of the unique functions of the kidneys--to process and remove impurities from the body. The other duty of the kidneys throughout our lives is to balance bodily fluids like electrolytes, stabilize blood pressure and to produce vital red blood cells.

Kidney Failure Risk Factors

While these organs act as a delicate factory much of the time, there are some conditions that can set the stage for kidney malfunction, also referred to as "kidney failure" or "renal failure" (renal is a Latin form of the word kidney). One of the key risk factors that contribute to the disruption of the regular working of the kidneys is increased age. As the general population continues to live longer over time, the chance of developing kidney disease will certainly grow.

Along with age, there are other elements that raise the chance of an older person developing kidney failure such as:

  • Presence of high blood pressure
  • History of diabetes
  • Family history of kidney issues
  • Overuse of medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen

Acute vs. Chronic Kidney Failure

The kidneys can experience a sudden change in function called "acute kidney failure" or slower developing problems that build over time called "chronic kidney failure". During acute renal or kidney failure, a number of scenarios may have caused a loss in kidney function. The origin of the issues may be endless but could include:

  • Dehydration or fluid depletion as a result of diarrhea or vomiting
  • Damage to the blood pathways to the kidney
  • Infection in parts of the kidney itself
  • Presence of kidney stones or calcified material which blocks functionality
  • Bladder issues which effect the toxins to have no outlet from the body

When acute renal failure is present, the symptoms normally appear in both kidneys and can be seen as:

  • Blood or protein in the urine
  • Abnormal blood test results for Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN), Creatinine and filtering abilities of the kidneys
  • Swelling of the extremities
  • Increased need for urination, which may be painful

The elderly are at the highest risk for acute kidney failure when there are past medical complications such as heart difficulties, weight issues, management issues related to diabetes and liver disease.

Kidney malfunction that is acute can be sudden and frightening while chronic renal failure may develop more slowly over a number of years without symptoms even being noted. Some of the subtle indicators of chronic kidney failure would include:

  • Shortness of breath as the body is struggling to carry toxins as well as oxygen
  • Excessive urination at night with limited urine output
  • Skin rashes may occur from impurities in the body that are building up with no ordinary way to escape
  • Frequent fatigue
  • Increased thirst
  • Chronic management issues with diabetes or high blood pressure

Acute kidney failure can usually resolve itself if the condition is treated quickly but chronic kidney problems that result in permanent damage may require either a kidney transplant or regular dialysis treatment. Dialysis is an artificial process where a person with kidney failure is hooked up to a special filtering device that removes waste products from the body.

Protecting Yourself against Kidney Failure

Even in situations where the potential risk of kidney disease may have been inherited, prevention plays a huge role in whether an elderly person develops a kidney problem or not. Here are five proactive ways you can help prevent kidney failure:

  1. Learn the warning signs as mentioned above.
  2. Watch your diet. Consulting with a dietician or nutritionist can help you find a kidney-friendly diet that will support you. Certain foods are harder for the kidneys to manage and can be restricted such as salty foods or those high in potassium.
  3. Monitor other chronic medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart issues.
  4. Exercise regularly.
  5. Discuss your use of pain relief medication with your physician.

Remember that advanced age does not automatically mean you will face kidney failure but conscious awareness of the risk factors and preventative measures will keep your kidneys humming through your senior years.