As we get older, there are a number of changes that happen to our bodies that we can not avoid. Our memory weakens, our strength in our muscles and joints fall over time. Our energy levels reduce. The same thing happens to our kidneys too. The kidneys loose function as we age even though we might be healthy. This makes added problems such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, heart problems, urine infections, taking medications at the wrong dose or wrong frequency problems we should avoid because they damage the kidneys even further and put our older people at high risk for kidney failure and premature death.
This post is meant to empower the older among us as well as to make family members of our older population more aware of the changes that happen in the kidney as we get older and the things that can be done to reduce additional damage to the kidney.
What happens to the kidneys as we get older?
As we age, the filtering units of the kidney called the glomeruli get scarred over and we loose some of the filtering units every year from the age of 40 or so. There is also a thickening of the blood vessels supplying the kidney leading to a reduction of blood flow to the kidney. Reducing filtering units and reduced blood flow to the kidney together lead to reductions in overall function of the kidney. In fact, approximately 2-3 our of every 10 elders over the age of 70 years old are believed to have only 60% or less of their kidney function left. In some clinical studies, it has been observed that about 1% of kidney function is lost every year we get older after the age of 40 years although it is not entirely clear if the loss of kidney function is due to age or diseases like high blood pressure, high blood sugar or other problems.
Why is it important to be aware of changes in kidney function as we age?
- Kidney disease can progress faster if a new problem such as diabetes develops.
- There are no proven treatments to stop or reverse age-related decreases in kidney function. Any treatment aimed at improving kidney function by causing the remaining functional kidney to work more may actually be harmful rather than beneficial to the kidney.
- Increased risk for sudden kidney injury from even mild events such as dehydration or exposure to usual amounts of pain medication such as aspirin, naproxen, indocin, ibuprofen and other similar drugs.
- Toxic accumulation of some medications that are cleared by the kidney may occur. Patients with disease or age-related decreases in kidney function may require medication dose adjustments. For example the dose of the drug may need to be reduced significantly or the frequency of the dosing reduced as well.
- With the increase in number of living kidney donor transplants, we need to be aware that even healthy older people may not be appropriate candidates for kidney donation.
How are Nigerians aging, what are the most important causes of death and what has this information got to do with kidney disease?
Life expectancy refers to the average length of time people can expect to live. It provides summary information of the death rates and health of a nation, an area, or a group of people. In the last 100 years, the global average life expectancy has more than doubled but there remains marked difference between countries with the highest and lowest life expectancy (Japan 82.1 years versus Angola 38.2 years)
Overall, Nigerians rank 183rd in life expectancy among 194 countries based on 2013 WHO statistics. The life expectancy at birth for a Nigerian in 1960 was about 37 years. By 2013, this had risen appreciably to 52.5 years. Other analyses show that a 60 year old Nigerian person is expected to live till about the age of 75. This means that an increasing number of elders will have to contend with problems related to kidney disease simply by aging even if they do not have any known medical problems. The problems older people have with kidney disease may be accelerated however if they develop other medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar or heart disease.
Pneumonia, HIV infection, stroke and heart disease are the leading causes of death in Nigeria. While kidney disease is not a top cause of death, about 20,000 people were estimated to have died from kidney disease in 2013- greater than all the people that died from Asthma and appendicitis combined.
Therefore, as Nigerians get older, more people will have kidney problems to pay attention to and these kidney problems can become a real and large cause of expense, suffering and death. In support of these statements, In many parts of the world, the fastest growing population of patients on dialysis or getting a transplant due to kidney failure are patients over the age of 65 years.
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