Over time, these two bean-shaped organs become less able to perform their job: filtering waste and excess water from the body. The result is chronic kidney disease, or CKD, which affects more than half of those over age 75.

"A lot of people become quite alarmed when they're told they have CKD, but it's quite common in older adults, and it's just another natural part of aging," says Richard Glassock, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In some advanced CKD, however, fluid and waste build up in the body to dangerous levels, becoming life-threatening. Here's how to protect yourself.

Take 4 Preventive Steps

1. Watch your meds. Over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can raise your CKD risk.

And research published this year in Scientific Reports found that people who regularly use proton pump inhibitors—such as esomeprazole (Nexium), lansoprazole (Prevacid), and omeprazole (Prilosec)—for frequent heartburn are more than 28 times as likely to have CKD as those who use histamine-2 receptor antagonists (Pepcid and Zantac).

More on Healthy Living

2. Sip smart. High consumption of sugary drinks is linked to a higher risk of CKD, according to 2019 research in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Alcohol can also harm your kidneys, so the National Kidney Foundation recommends no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.

3. Limit red meat. Research suggests that people who eat about 1.7 ounces a day have a higher risk of severe kidney disease than those who eat less than half an ounce. Plant sources of protein, like soy or beans, may help reduce risk.

4. Don't smoke. It slows blood flow to your kidneys, which can damage them. 

See If You Need Screening

Doctors screen for kidney disease by measuring blood levels of a waste product called creatinine and combining this with factors such as age, race, and gender.

These make up your glomerular filtration rate (GFR). The lower it is, the more likely it is that you have CKD. To diagnose CKD, your doctor should also check your urine for protein (levels may be high in CKD).

If you're in good health and have no CKD symptoms, such as feet and ankle swelling, frequent nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, and shortness of breath, there's no reason to be screened, says Glassock.

You need to be screened if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, the two most common causes of CKD. Get screened annually if you have diabetes; if you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about a screening schedule.

Know How to Live Well

Diagnosed with CKD? The most important steps are controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure, and diabetes (if you have it), says Staci Leisman, M.D., a kidney specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Keep daily dietary sodium to no more than 2,300 mg and cut back on protein—your kidneys have to work hard to process it.

Some people with CKD also develop high blood potassium and phosphate levels. They need a low-potassium diet and may take medicine to curb the absorption of phosphate from food.

People who need medication for high blood pressure or diabetes should talk with their doctor about what's most appropriate for them. Certain types of blood pressure drugs, for instance, can lower both blood pressure and urine protein levels. For pain, stick with acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic).

And exercise regularly. People with CKD who did aerobic or strength training three times a week for 12 weeks reported improvements in symptoms, in a 2019 study in the Clinical Kidney Journal.

If you follow the steps above and have your kidney specialist check your kidney function at regular intervals, you may very well be able to stay healthy and prevent CKD from progressing. "Patients can remain stable for decades, and most will never need dialysis," Glassock says.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the September 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health