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9 Ways to Keep Kidneys Healthy

How to protect this vital organ and recognize the signs of disease

spinner image a white line drawing of kidneys on a red background
Handini_Atmodiwiryo / Getty Images

Kidney disease is the fastest growing noncommunicable disease in the United States, according to the American Kidney Fund. Kidney disease affects 37 million Americans, or 15 percent of all adults. It’s often called the “silent epidemic,” because signs and symptoms are usually nonexistent until the kidneys are already damaged. Once kidneys fail, people need lifelong dialysis or a kidney transplant. With good management and new treatments, kidney disease can be prevented and managed. Here are nine ways to keep your kidneys healthy and slow down progression of the disease.

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1. Know what puts you at risk for kidney disease

Diabetes, or high levels of blood sugar in the body, is the number one risk factor for kidney disease. High blood pressure is also strongly associated with kidney disease. Other risks include heart disease, obesity, family history, past kidney damage and aging. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are at higher risk than white people. As we age, our kidneys lose some of their function.

9 signs of kidney disease

When your kidneys aren’t functioning properly, you may experience the following.

1. Fatigue, lack of energy, trouble concentrating

2. Trouble sleeping

3. Dry and itchy skin

4. Need to urinate more frequently

5. Blood in urine

6. Puffiness around the eyes

7. Ankle and foot swelling

8. Lack of appetite

9. Muscle cramping

Physical warning signs for kidney disease are very rare. Most kidney disease is detected through blood work. However, if you have persistent foam or blood in your urine, this may indicate a kidney disorder. People passing kidney stones may experience sharp pain that comes in waves or spreads to the groin area. The National Kidney Foundation says stones increase your risk of kidney disease.

Michelle Josephson, M.D., a nephrologist and professor of medicine and surgery at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, says you should be sure to discuss the effect medications you take may have on your kidneys. Certain immunologic drugs, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, some antibiotics and other medications can increase your risk for kidney disease.

2. Talk to your doctor about prevention and treatment

If you have diabetes, prediabetes, high blood pressure, family members with kidney disease or other risk factors, ask your doctor to check your kidney function using simple blood and urine tests. Because kidney disease is usually silent, tests are the only way to know if you have damage. The results will tell you how well your kidneys are working.

More specifically, a blood test will tell you how well your kidneys filter blood by measuring creatinine — a protein produced by muscles that is usually filtered and excreted in urine. When kidneys aren’t working properly, the level of creatinine builds up in the bloodstream. A urine test can detect whether protein is present that can pass into the urine when kidneys are damaged.

Your primary care physician or provider should work with you to monitor and control your blood sugar, blood pressure and weight and to help you make healthy lifestyle changes. Depending upon the seriousness of damage, you may be referred to or choose to see a nephrologist, or kidney specialist.

3. Control your blood sugar

The number one cause of kidney failure is diabetes, which can cause damage to the cells and blood vessels in your kidneys.

Kidney disease is a common complication from diabetes. Susan Quaggin, M.D., chief of nephrology and hypertension at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says diabetes accounts for almost half of all newly diagnosed kidney failure each year.

An A1C test measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months. It’s important to know if you’re at risk for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, as well as how well you're managing diabetes.

4. Control your blood pressure

High blood pressure or hypertension is commonly associated with kidney disease. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, approximately one in two American adults has high blood pressure. 


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Blood pressure measures the force of blood pushing against your blood vessel walls as your heart pumps. If your blood pressure is consistently high, you should have your kidney function checked. 

High blood pressure is a very common problem. By staying active, avoiding too much salt and taking medications as prescribed, you can help lower your blood pressure. Josephson says it’s important to get your blood pressure checked regularly.

spinner image a 3D illustration of human kidneys on a scientific background with blood cells
The kidneys are vital to removing waste from the body.
Mohammed Haneefa Nizamudeen / Getty Images

How your kidneys work and what happens when they fail

Most people are born with two bean-shaped kidneys, each about the size of a fist, located in the middle of the back just below the rib cage. Healthy kidneys filter blood and prevent the buildup of waste and extra fluid in the body and balance the salts and minerals in the blood. The body needs clean blood to function properly. Extra water becomes urine that’s stored in the bladder until you’re ready to go to the bathroom. In addition to cleaning your blood, your kidneys help control blood pressure, make red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body and keep bones healthy. 

When kidneys fail to operate properly, fluid builds up in the body. The most common treatments for kidney failure are dialysis or kidney transplant. Dialysis is the use of an artificial kidney machine that removes waste products and extra fluid from the body. Treatments take about four hours and are done three times a week. A kidney transplant requires an operation to put a healthy kidney into the body.

Sources: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Kidney Foundation

5. Make healthy food choices to protect your kidneys

Eating a healthy diet is important to your general well-being, but if you have kidney disease or are at risk for it, you should pay special attention. You may even want to consult with a dietitian who has experience in kidney health to learn how to avoid foods that affect the ability of your kidneys to filter blood and remove waste from your body.

Your diet should be low in salt. Salt can cause high blood pressure, especially if you have diseased narrowing of blood vessels. So, avoid adding salt to your food and eat fresh foods rather than preserved products that contain large amounts of salt and sugar. Skip fatty meats, and shop for items labeled “reduced sodium” or “low sodium.”

Reduce the sugar in your diet. There’s a direct link between too much sugar and diabetes, which can cause kidney disease. Drink water instead of colas and sweetened fruit juices. Keep in mind many condiments have elevated sugar and sodium content and should be minimized.

Finally, be mindful of how much protein you eat. Too much can damage your kidneys by making them work too hard. The amount of protein that’s healthy to eat depends on your body size and activity level, so work with your doctor.

6. If you have kidney disease, limit these foods

The mineral potassium has many roles, including to help the body maintain normal levels of fluid inside the cells, to influence blood pressure and to control muscle contraction. However, for people with damaged kidneys, too much potassium can overburden the kidneys and cause damage to the heart. Stay away from dried fruits, baked potatoes, lentils, bananas and milk. Again, work with your doctor.

People with kidney disease also need to limit phosphorus. Together with calcium, it’s needed to build strong bones and to keep you healthy, but too much can be difficult for damaged kidneys to dispose of. Phosphorus is often used as a food additive or preservative and can be found in bottled drinks and foods that are processed, prepackaged and canned. It’s not required to be listed on food labels, but you may see words beginning with phos that indicate hidden phosphorus. You should speak with your doctor or dietitian about how much is too much.

Cindy Pynadath, a transplant nephrologist at Montefiore Health System in New York, says that if you have advanced kidney disease, you should closely follow the recommendations of your nephrologist and a dietitian. “Generally, avoid foods rich in sugar, potassium and phosphorus and maintain a heart healthy diet. Depending upon your stage of disease, your protein and fluid intake may also need to be limited,” she says.

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7. Get enough exercise to help control blood sugar and blood pressure

Like good eating habits, physical exercise is important for your overall health and can keep your kidneys healthy or prevent further damage. Continuous physical movement such as walking, swimming and bicycling improves blood pressure and blood sugar levels, lowers cholesterol and helps maintain a healthy weight. Low-level strengthening exercises with weights will also improve your overall health.

Speak with your doctor before starting on an exercise plan, but your goal should generally be to exercise at least five days a week for 30 minutes.

8. Stop smoking

Smoking is damaging to your overall health. According to a 2010 study published in BMC Public Health, smoking increases your risk for kidney disease. 

If you already have kidney problems, smoking will make them worse. It damages your blood vessels, slows blood flow to your kidneys and other organs and causes kidney irritation. It can interfere with medication used to lower blood pressure.

9. Get enough good sleep

Sleep is important to overall health and well-being. It gives you more energy, makes you more focused, improves your blood pressure and controls your appetite.

New research has linked sleep deprivation and disorders to higher rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney malfunction. People who sleep less usually have faster kidney function decline.

Researchers are finding that kidney function is regulated by the sleep-wake cycle, which can help coordinate the kidneys’ workload.

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