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Blacks and Kidney Disease: At Risk

Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) on the rise

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Updated November 25, 2003

Two African-American professional athletes have developed focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (glo-MAIR-u-lo-skla-RO-sis)(FSGS, for short), a rare, severe, potentially fatal kidney disease. How can two young men in excellent physical condition be so gravely ill? The cases of Alonzo Mourning (New Jersey Nets) and Sean Elliott (formerly of the San Antonio Spurs) illustrate the rise of FSGS in particular, and the prevalence of kidney disease among the African-American population in general.

Kidneys have important functions
Most people are aware that the kidneys make urine. Actually, the kidneys filter our blood and remove all the impurities, and regulate the levels of salt and water in the body. The wastes and excess water are collected and passed as urine. The kidneys also produce hormones, including one that controls the production of red blood cells, and another that's important for Vitamin D absorption.

When FSGS strikes
Glomerular disease, a problem with the waste filtering units, causes impurities to build up in the blood. Physical symptoms will be:

  • two blood tests, serum creatinine and blood urea nitrogen (BUN) will have abnormally high levels
  • a urine test will be positive for protein (normally there isn't any)
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • may progress to swollen ankles and abdomen.

FSGS has these symptoms, usually affects children and adults between the ages of 15 and 30, and like other kidney diseases, if left untreated can cause the kidneys to stop working (fail), and eventually kill a person.

African-Americans at risk
Researchers don't know why FSGS is on the rise, or exactly what causes it. They do know, however, why kidney disease overall is increasing, especially among African-Americans. In particular, African-Americans have a high risk of developing end-stage kidney disease, meaning one or both kidneys are so bad the person needs dialysis or a kidney transplant. (This is what happened to Sean Elliott.)

African-Americans are at risk because of high blood pressure (blacks have it twice as often as whites) and diabetes (1.5 times as often as whites), which are both related to obesity (higher rates among black diabetics than white diabetics).

What you can do to stay healthy
So, if you're at high risk for kidney disease, what can you do? Try to prevent it by eating a healthy diet, using less salt in and on your food, staying trim, and exercising. Also, make sure you get regular physical examinations that include checks of your blood pressure, blood sugar, and urine.

Information for this article was taken from:
- National Kidney Foundation. Ten Facts About African-Americans And Kidney Disease
- Tye, Larry. Mourning case puts focus on kidney disease. The Boston Globe, October 24, 2000.

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