02/07/2013 10:22 am ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Listen to Your Heart: 5 Danger Signs Not to Ignore

Thanks to Valentine's Day and American Heart Month, in February, the heart comes into the limelight. Since it's already illuminated, I want to expand the spotlight and broaden the focus.

The heart may be the main squeeze, but it relies on multiple partners, especially the kidneys. They work together as models of a successful, balanced and healthy relationship.

The heart is responsible for pumping blood to all the right places in the body. The kidney removes waste products and excess fluid from the blood so that clean blood can return to the heart. This cycle continues 'round the clock. At the same time, the kidney helps regulate blood pressure and stimulates the production of new red blood cells. Since the heart and kidneys work in tandem, it probably isn't a surprise that many of the risk factors for chronic kidney disease (CKD) are the same as the risk factors for heart disease.

Diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis) cause damage to both the heart and kidneys. So if you have heart disease, then it is likely that you have kidney disease and vice-versa. Many people don't experience severe symptoms until their kidney disease or heart disease is quite advanced, but there are some warning signs. Could you be ignoring hints of danger?

Here are 5 clues from the National Kidney Foundation that may signal trouble for your heart or kidneys:

  1. Swelling around your extremities. The kidneys filter wastes from the blood and remove excess water from the body through the urine. When the kidneys aren't doing their job, this fluid can stay in the system instead of being excreted. Swelling around the hands, feet, and ankles may be associated with kidney or heart failure and shouldn't be dismissed.
  2. High blood pressure or hypertension. High blood pressure is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes and chronic kidney disease. Controlling high blood pressure by losing excess weight, exercising, not smoking, cutting back on salt and taking high blood pressure medications reduces the risk of these complications. Even borderline high blood pressure, or pre-hypertension, should be taken seriously, as it can inflict damage on the kidneys.
  3. Shortness of breath when you lie down. Fluid retention in the lungs can be made worse when you lie down. Experiencing shortness of breath when lying flat is seen in both kidney disease and heart disease.
  4. Protein or blood in the urine. Urinalysis or urine testing is used to look for abnormalities such as an excess amount of protein, blood, pus, bacteria or sugar. A urine test can help to detect a variety of kidney and urinary tract disorders, including chronic kidney disease, diabetes, bladder infections and kidney stones. A trace of one type of protein, albumin in urine (albuminuria), is an early sign of chronic kidney disease. Persistent amounts of albumin and other proteins in the urine (proteinuria) indicate kidney damage. The presence of albumin is also a risk factor for cardiovascular events and death.
  5. High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in your blood. Too much cholesterol can build up in your blood vessels, narrowing vessels and leading to blockages. When a blockage occurs in your heart vessels, it is called coronary heart disease and can cause a heart attack. In people with chronic kidney disease (CKD), heart disease is very common so it is suggested that people with CKD have cholesterol labs drawn at least yearly. As you spill protein in the urine, this leads to an elevation in your blood cholesterol, called nephrotic syndrome. Some doctors may want to check cholesterol more frequently depending on what other health issues you may have.

If someone you know is experiencing any of these warning signs for heart disease or kidney disease, show them some love this Valentine's Day by encouraging them to visit the doctor. For more information about kidney disease and heart disease, visit the National Kidney Foundation.

For more by Leslie Spry, M.D., FACP, click here.

Fore more on personal health, click here.